The Square Ball Week: The Passion of The Chris Wood

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Marching on Together was released in 1972. Guantanamera dates back to 1929 but was recorded and released internationally in 1966. You’ll Never Walk Alone was first heard in the musical Carousel in 1945. Give It Up, as in ‘Na na na na na na na na na na na — Baby’, and also as in, ‘Leeds Are Going Up’, was released in 1982, and football still hasn’t forgotten it, one of KC & The Sunshine Band’s biggest hits.

Please Don’t Go was also a big hit for KC & The Sunshine Band, in 1979, and again in 1992 for KWS, which was the dancefloor friendly version that found its way to the terraces as the nineties and Jean-Marc Bosman made player power useful for more than dislodging an unwelcome, ticklish Clough. Transfer rumours would start, a player would be clouded by paper talk, and at the next game, the song would start up: ‘Please don’t go’ we’d plead, imploring Lee Sharpe to resist that loan to Sampdoria. Well, maybe he’s a bad example, but he was basically a KC & The Sunshine Band concert in footballer form, so I’m including him.

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More usually it was an actual top player, someone we wanted to keep, back when we had players who were the envy of Europe. Eric Cantona and David Batty were sold before we had a chance to even clear our throats, then there were Lucas Radebe, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Lee Bowyer, Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith: we had them all, and we were desperate to hold on to them all, but with the exception of Radebe, we watched them all go. Maybe Lucas was the only one with an appreciation for hi-NRG covers of late seventies disco tracks.

Please Don’t Go has fallen out of fashion, which is curious, given the longevity of football songs. In the last ten years Sloop John B came into vogue, a Beach Boys hit resurrected from 1966, and then there’s the curious case of I Will Follow Him, belted out by Peggy March in 1963 after a few curious multilingual renditions by Petula Clark, rediscovered and repackaged into ultra ubiquity at grounds across Europe. You’d think a number one from 1992 would have lasted.

But who can predict the music tastes of football fans? The song of choice at Elland Road this season is ‘Du du du du du du, Thomas Christiansen’, which is the brass bit from This Girl by Kungs and Cookin’ on Three Burners, which only came out last year. And what sort of name is that for a band anyway, and why aren’t they playing proper instruments, those are record players, any idiot can stand behind a record player. It’s not even music anyway, it’s just shouting, and what’s Kungs, is that a boy or a girl?

That it’s taken three home games for Thomas Christiansen’s name to be sung at Elland Road more than Gordon Strachan’s has been in the last three decades says more about fans’ liking for a catchy tune than it does about Christiansen’s popularity. It’s all about the tune these days, and far fewer than once did make the crossover from chart to terrace, so when we’ve got a song that takes off, we’ll sing it for all it’s worth. We might not sing Strachan’s name because he’s not on the pitch. Neither’s Ronaldo Vieira at the moment, but still, ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’

There were some chants of ‘Woody, Woody’ against Fulham after his goal was ruled out, but certainly no revival for Please Don’t Go, and no other audible imploring with our thirty-goal striker to resist the lure of Burnley and stay. Perhaps pleading with footballers through song is simply out of style now, unless it’s requesting Garry Monk go forth and multiply.

Or maybe we’ve simply got out of the habit. Selling our best players is nothing new at Leeds United, but over the last five years, through Ross McCormack, Sam Byram, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor (and maybe a bit of Alex Mowatt) we’ve not so much as tried to tug at the heartstrings of a player to get them to stay. Instead, we’ve been all Terry Venables with Olivier Dacourt, offering to drive the greedy sods to Bournemouth ourselves because we’ve got Paul Okon anyway. It’s been less Please Don’t Go and more Fuck You Right Back. Or, in Sam Byram’s case, fuck you, right-back.

It’s refreshing and disorientating at the moment for potentially the biggest transfer of them all to be developing around us without the rancour that surrounded any of those moves. In essence, the situation is exactly the same as with McCormack, Byram, Cook and Taylor (although definitely not Mowatt): after a season of brilliant performances, an offer to cash-in their chips while aiming at a higher level of football comes in, and football’s inherent tension between team and individual frays and cracks. Everyone at Leeds United wants to go to the Premier League, but it’s easier to thread Lewis Cook through the eye of a needle than for Souleymane Doukara to go with him to the kingdom of Bournemouth.

What’s different with Chris Wood is that there seems to be very little desire among the supporters to shove the greedy chops mercenary footballer out the door if he doesn’t love Leeds enough to stay and play against Burton, Brentford and Barnsley, especially when compared with the taunts that still pour like ashes upon Sam Byram’s head whenever he fails to make West Ham’s first eleven. That fate serves him right for chasing the money and the glory in the first place, apparently. A twenty million pound move to Burnley? Well that serves you right too, Chris, now let’s shake hands mate and all the best.

The difference is so obvious it barely needs stating: Massimo Cellino hasn’t gone running to every newspaper in town complaining that Chris Wood thinks he’s bigger than the club and that he feels a personal pain in his heart that he wants to leave, and that no higher football authority than Steve Evans says Scott Wootton is better anyway, so why doesn’t everybody show this ungrateful little pig exactly what they think of a player who’d rather play in the Premier League than play for Leeds?

He was want-away Sam Byram, but if anybody can find any comment from Sam Byram about wanting away from Leeds United, you can have a biscuit. All we ever had was Massimo Cellino’s word for his behaviour, but unfortunately we also had too many people willing to take that word and run with it.

For all we know, Chris Wood might be an absolute nightmare in training at the moment: sulking, skulking and moping his way through practice, whinging about how much better a pie is in a breadcake and claiming that Charlie Taylor’s Snapchat has been pure banter since he went to Burnley. He hears Thomas Christiansen telling him in his high pitched way, ‘Christoper, I need you to improve the potentiality in one-on-one situations’, and all he can think is how much better it would be if Sean Dyche was growling at him to ‘Just put the ball in the bloody net.’

But until and unless Andrea Radrizzani pops up on Calendar, weeping over a lock of hair from Chris Wood’s chinstrap that he can’t live with the torture anymore, we won’t know. And unless he does, the situation will proceed calmly towards a conclusion, and Wood will either leave or not, and while some might mutter about his head being turned every time he misses a chance, the bile that came Byram and Cook’s way will stay in the stomach.

No bile, but also no desperate tears. Because another possible explanation for the lack of fervour around the prospect of losing Wood is that the fans are relatively indifferent. Which is barmy, given that he scored thirty goals last season and is basically our only proven striker, but this is football, where barminess is encouraged.

With Byram and Cook there was an edge of betrayal, given that we’d nurtured them from lambs, although I always maintain that had they just gone to Manchester City when they were eight years old in the first place, instead of suffering through various Bates/GFH/Cellino inspired circuses they’d probably both be England internationals by now; breaking through under Neil Warnock probably set Byram back more than it propelled him forward.

But Chris Wood came to us from Leicester, and before that he came from New Zealand, so we don’t have the awkward teenage photos (or rap videos, in Mowatt’s case) of him in a Leeds kit to make us all dusty-eyed. And he’s not a player who inspires an emotional response, because on the pitch he only shows a few emotional gears of his own: celebrating a goal, nothing, or moaning at Hadi Sacko. His role in LUTV’s Hallowe’en video last season summed Wood up. They hid Kalvin Phillips in the dressing room, and asked players to wait there alone before taping an interview; Kalvin leaped out from his hiding place, startling some and nearly getting a hiding from Pontus Jansson. When it was Wood’s turn, Thom Kirwin asked him to wait while he went to fetch something; Wood waited for about two seconds before shrugging, turning and walking out, leaving Kalvin to frighten an empty room.

What I’m saying is he doesn’t seem to be the big man for the banter, old Woody, or for the love-love relationship with the fans of a Pontus, Ayling or Berardi (or even Kyle Bartley, if we’re going back to songs we want to sing because they’re good songs, rather than relevant). We can’t even get his name right: he’ll always be Chris Woods to some.

Instead, Chris Wood is a proper number nine who had a proper season last season, and has a proper chance at the big money and the big arena, who would leave a proper gap in the Leeds United team if he left. And he, along with the club, is dealing with the bids from above in the proper manner, which is proper weird given the last few years at Leeds, and is proper taking some proper getting used to.

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What’s slightly improper, though, is the lack of passion towards a big player for Leeds, who has every right to be loved for working to improve his game so much last season — and every right to be rewarded for it, too. Perhaps we can’t offer him the rewards Burnley can — evidence itself that these are footballing end times — but we can offer him a shot at promotion if he stays. If we could offer him a warmer shoulder and perhaps even a song or two, that might sweeten him. But if it’s not going to work, perhaps this way of letting him go with quiet dignity is what we need now, after so many bitter parting rows. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)