It is not a phrase that would often be applied to Leeds United, but it is the reason why, nearly half-way into the Championship season, they have the Premier League back in their sights. “We’re keeping it low-key”, explains Chris Wood, Leeds’ star striker, and one of main reasons why they can go third if they beat Brighton on Friday night.
Wood has 13 goals already this season, and he puts his own form, and that of the whole team, down to Leeds’ attempts to be as steady and predictable as possible this year. After the last few years of chaos and carnage at Elland Road that is an admirable goal. Even the news that Massimo Cellino is facing an FA ban and fine does not look like knocking Leeds out of their stride.
Garry Monk has been safely in charge since the summer and Leeds are reaping the benefits. They have won five of their last six, beaten only by Newcastle United. They look like the likeliest Leeds team to come up to the top flight since Simon Grayson’s team back in 2010-11.
“We all want to strive for the play-offs,” Wood tells The Independent. “We are keeping it pretty low-key, and we just want to improve on last year and progress as a team. Last year, there was a lot of chopping and changing, then a lot of change last summer. As players, we just want a season that is chilled out, with consistency the whole way through. This season shows how much that consistency is working for us.”
It is consistency in the dug-out, and on the training ground, that is making the difference. Wood joined Leeds in summer 2015, as Neil Redfearn made way for Uwe Rosler, and last season Rosler left in October 2015 for Steve Evans, who in turn was replaced in June by Monk. It might sound chaotic, but for the fact that the previous season, they had three managers, with Redfearn doing the job twice.
When Monk arrived he was determined to get the most out of Wood, who had a difficult 2015-16 season, losing three months to a hamstring injury and struggling for fitness and form. Evans did not pick Wood as much as he might. “Last season I scored 13 goals in the Championship but I knew I could have scored a lot more,” Wood said. “I missed three months of the season, and quite a few chances.”
Wood’s place was not certain at the start of this season, but despite a difficult start, Monk trusted him. “You can fulfil your potential here”, Monk told Wood. “You can push this club forward and do well for us. We’ve got a lot of good players on paper here. We just need to make the team work together.”
Having James Beattie on the coaching staff has also made a difference. Beattie has got inside Wood’s head, telling him how he can be more dominant and arrogant on the pitch, imposing himself on opponents. “It’s good having him there, a striker that I watched playing and scoring goals through his whole career,” Wood says. “It’s good having him there to give me that extra support, those extra ideas, to take my game on a bit further.”
What Wood needed more than anything else was trust. He did not always have that under Rosler and Evans, but he has it now with Monk, and it is shining through every week. “The gaffer has given me a lot of confidence playing-wise,” Wood says. “That is what you need as a player, knowing your manager is going to back you. You thrive on it.”
That explains why Wood is currently on course for a 25-goal season, his target from the summer. It was not an easy start, but after a last-minute equalising overhead kick at Craven Cottage in August, his first league goal of the season, he has not looked back.
“There has been a huge change from the start of the season to now,” Wood says. “Of course expectations are always high at the club. There is always a bit of doom and gloom, but now people are thinking the team is starting to do well, and are getting back to supporting them.”
And 13 goals in, Wood just wants to keep going. “It’s a feeling that you would love to be able to bottle,” he says. “It is the best feeling in the world, when you just feel like football is perfect. Winning games, scoring goals, everything ticking along in a way that you would love to continue your whole career.”
It helps that Leeds have better service this season, and have finally bought well, in Kemar Roofe, Pablo Hernandez and Hadi Sacko. Those players can cut teams open, giving Wood better quality chances than he has had in the past. They look, if not quite like a Premier League team, then certainly closer to one than they have done for some time.
Wood’s last shot at the top flight was “frustrating”, not given a single league start at Nigel Pearson’s Leicester. “He always said ‘you’ll get your chance, you’ll get your chance’, and it just never came,” Wood says. “I would like a manager that would back me in that situation, and who knows where I could go.”
Wherever Leeds finish this year, it will be an exciting 2017 for Wood. New Zealand are playing at the Confederations Cup in June, in a group with Mexico, Portugal and hosts Russia. For Wood, who captained his country in Winston Reid’s absence last month, playing for his country in a tournament would be a dream, seven years after the 2010 World Cup.
“It will be quality to experience a big tournament like that, and I think we can turn a few heads there,” he says. After that, the 2018 World Cup is a priority. But before the Premier League and the World Cup, there are more immediate concerns, like Brighton on Friday night.
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