Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: if a goal falls in the wood

the square ball week: if a goal falls in the wood

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Wednesday should have been his night. Twenty goals before the end of January is no mean feat, especially for a player who, since he signed for Leeds United, has at times seemed weighed down by his banjo, unable to locate Billy Paynter to hit it with.

When he’s asked about scoring twenty, Chris Wood might affect a nonchalant air; in pre-season, he wanted to give the impression that if you’ve got Chris Wood in your side, then twenty goals come with it as standard. Could he score twenty in a season, for the second time in his career? “Easily,” he said. “I’ve done it before so I can do it again. If I have a full season then I’ll do it easily and I’m happy to back myself on that. It’s what I’ll be looking for this season.”

But we saw right through that relaxed veneer back in August, when Wood came running at the Kop, ball in net, hand by ear, telling the fans where to shove their stick. It backfired, not quite in an Aizlewood way, but enough to obscure the appreciation of what had been a shocking, and shockingly good, overhead kick, and move the focus back to the header he’d scuffed wide, and the fact he was being a bit of a precious arse about some fairly lightweight criticism.

All that was very early in the season, though, and if we’re to ward off the wobbling credit-thief of Mansfield Town as he comes stomping towards Elland Road at the sniff of some glory-by-association and say that Garry Monk has done well to get so much out of Chris Wood, then we need to acknowledge that, by the Fulham game, Monk had not yet had time to say enough to dislodge the exhortations of Evans from Chris Wood’s mind.

Monk hadn’t found his own rhythm as a manager yet, either; Plan A went awry at QPR and Fleetwood — where Wood did notch a penalty — then plan B was endured through games with Birmingham, Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield Town, before Monk got back to being Monk. He’d been sacrificing his philosophy by playing 4-4-2 in search of short term results, he said; he’d learned to stick with longer term principles.

That meant Chris Wood playing up front on his own ahead of, preferably, Pablo Hernandez and two holding midfielders, with a player either side on the wings. And reverting to that, and sticking to that, and working on it and practising it, must have meant working hard on Wood’s role in the side, and working out how to get the best out of him. And lo, the goals have flowed.

Getting the best out of Wood has been crucial to this. Stats websites can be bewildering, but as far I can tell and recall, Wood has only scored two headers in the league this season; thirteen of his goals have been scored with his right foot. Which is what I was saying all along even as I aimed rotten oranges at Wood for missing the simplest headers: he missed them because he’s not very good at them. Get the ball to the big man’s feet, though, and he’ll crack in a superb volley, knock the ball off the post from thirty yards.

That’s become a feature of our play; Wood gets through balls from Hernandez, now, and low crosses from Sacko or Roofe or Dallas. Corners aren’t aimed at him; they’re aimed at Jansson or Bartley, who will either head them into the goal themselves, or get the ball on the floor where Wood can knock it over the line.

And with goals, and confidence in his role, have come improvements in other parts of Wood’s game. Against Fleetwood, a video clip taken as Leeds awaited a corner showed a contrast between Marcus Antonsson — skipping around the six yard box, looking for space — and Wood, standing there like an ancient oak. Recently, though, and especially against Forest, Wood has almost seemed to be enjoying aiming his bulk at a defender or goalkeeper and sprinting at them to force either a mistake or a Doukaragol level collision.

Ah yes, the Doukaragol. Even if twenty goals is business as usual for Wood, the way he celebrated it suggested it meant much more to him than he might otherwise let on; and the night should have belonged to him. Instead Adam Pope from BBC Leeds was asking Souleymane Doukara if he’d be keeping the match ball as a memento, while Wood packed his good mood into his washbag and trudged for home. Where I hope he didn’t check Twitter, looking for praise.

Who would want to be Chris Wood? And who would want to be a striker for Leeds United, anyway? Jermaine Beckford scored twenty, and that wasn’t impressive because I mean Tresor Kandol scored eleven so. Then Beckford scored twenty-six and twenty-four and it wasn’t a thing because it was only League One. Then Luciano Becchio scored fifteen, fourteen, nineteen and eighteen (in half a season), none of which is twenty. Then Ross McCormack scored twenty-nine, and he wanted paying for it, the bastard.

McCormack has been back in the news over the past week since the always reliable Steve Bruce took his complaints about McCormack’s lack of application in training — he ain’t turning up, even — public, and some tabloids decided to join in with quoteless stories about what the Fulham players think about him. McCormack scored seventeen and then twenty-one goals in his two seasons at Fulham, with nine assists each time, and yet he’s now regarded as the consummate unprofessional; perhaps if his teammates at Fulham had been as unprofessional, the team might have finished higher than seventeenth.

McCormack was similarly impactful at Elland Road, scoring or making half the team’s goals in 2013/14, shouldering a burden that probably kept us out of League One. When he left, his place as top scorer was taken by Mirco Antenucci — on ten. And yet many Leeds fans have gleefully joined in with the boot of Bruce, pointing the finger at his contracts and his ill-judged spokesperson act when Cellino arrived, as if they all had him down as a bad ‘un all along and were all too pleased to be proved right; as if that was what mattered.

There’s no Venn diagram for who is saying what, but one goal by Doukara seems to have done a lot more for his record with some fans than twenty-nine (plus silly numbers of assists) did for McCormack’s; I’d wager, too, that Doukara’s wages have been higher at Leeds than McCormack’s ever were; and supplemented by the taste of polyester and human chest-flesh. People, he scored a great goal. He also bit a man!

And then there’s Chris Wood, dutifully racking up the numbers, and pretending he doesn’t care when someone else gets all the headlines; when we know damn well from seeing his cupped-ear and his bottom lip that he’s got a striker’s ego like any of them, and like any of them, it needs massaging. When he scored against Forest he had another gesture for the Kop: his hands and fingers formed a two and an oh, and oh, it was good, for a bit. Maybe if he gets twenty-five and behaves himself, maybe it’ll good again for longer. Two with the fingers of one hand, Chris, five on the other — get practising.

Or maybe Wood is just a victim of the structure of the game: kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, OHMYGODDIDYOUSEETHAT. There will be those with the record books for whom Wood’s graph this season will forever be beautiful; but the popular history that will be replayed on the big-screen and the small-screen for years to come will put one goal, one volley, one moment on repeat and at the forefront of our memories forever. The one time Doukara managed to get it right.

Only in football can one beat twenty. But Chris Wood should take heart. There are big games ahead, and hopefully for him, lots of them, hopefully in this same hot form. And there will be more chances for him than for Doukara, I’m sure. And maybe one day he’ll hit that goal that validates all the others; that one incredigol that Chris Wood scored, that season when he scored twenty or thirty or however many others, that nobody remembers.

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