A Kiwi striker in the English Premier League was hard to imagine a short time ago. But Chris Wood continues to exceed every expectation. Michael Burgess travelled to Burnley to unpack the secrets of his success.
Chris Wood is standing alone in a corridor inside Burnley's Turf Moor base. He is wearing jeans, a club jacket and a weary expression, after duelling for ninety minutes – with no reward - against Crystal Palace.
It is a freezing Lancashire night and the All Whites captain probably has better things to do than front for an interview, especially after a frustrating defeat where he missed a point blank chance, labelled a turning point by Burnley manager Sean Dyche in the press conference.
But Wood, in the best traditions of Rudyard Kipling's If, has never been one to hide from a difficult situation. "It's one of those," Wood tells the Herald. "Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. But chances are going to come, and I had a couple cleared off the line. You look at the one I put over but that is life in football. I can't dwell on that because there is always a chance around the corner - so I have to keep going."
And how he did.
Since that night last December Wood has scored six goals from sixteen starts, helping Burnley to ninth on the Premier League table, above Arsenal and Everton. The 28-year-old will end another remarkable season this Monday (NZT), when Burnley host Brighton.
He has notched 13 goals, his third successive campaign with a double digit return and the most by a Burnley striker in the top flight since 1976. He's found the net against nine different clubs, including Manchester United, Leicester City, Spurs and Wolves.
Superlatives are hard to find. This season his scoring ratio is superior to Riyad Mahrez, Son Heung-Min and Alexandre Lacazette and his goals tally comparable with Sergio Aguero (16), Harry Kane (17) and Sadio Mane (17). He's now scored more Premier League goals (33) than names like Juninho, Andrey Arshavin and David Ginola.
A Kiwi striker in the Premier League? That was almost impossible to imagine not so long ago. Now Wood is well established, and only behind Wynton Rufer as a goalscoring talent from this country.
Last month marked Wood's 12th year in England. He left these shores as a 17-year old to head to West Bromwich Albion, where his Waikato-based coach Roger Wilkinson had some connections.
A product of Onehunga Sports, Cambridge United and Hamilton Wanderers, Wood had dreams but few expectations.
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"I just wanted to enjoy it and see where it takes me," reflects Wood. "I knew coming over here that just to be in the academy over here was tough work, let alone making the first team. "I got some good breaks, a manager that liked me and a few injuries along the way which helped me get my start and get my legs in the first team. I didn't have anything coming over; I just knew it was going to be a challenge, but a challenge that I was willing to take on."
Wood's progression through the different tiers of English football has been remarkable.
He played at eight different clubs – often on loan – and scored goals wherever he went, before a golden spell at Leeds in the Championship (44 goals in 88 games) prompted the move to Burnley in August 2017, for a club record fee (15 million GBP).
How does he reflect on his career so far? "With great pride and joy," says Wood. "I ended up living out my dream and there is a lot more to come. It is fantastic that I have been able to push and achieve what I have achieved in my career."
Burnley is the smallest town in the Premier League, with a population of around 80,000 people. It's 35km north of Manchester, with Blackburn and Preston neighbours to the west. Leeds is an hour's drive east.
"There's not much here, lad, but we like it," says the taxi driver, on the way to the training ground, a few miles from the railway station.
"Burnley people are Burnley people…that's how it is."
Journalists are gathered in the Arthur Bellamy media centre, named after the former player and coach who later lived at the training complex, where he was head groundsmen.
The hot soup provided is appreciated on a chilly morning, while the squad practice out of sight on a distant field. Manager Dyche is in good spirits, coming off a 3-0 away win over Watford. He's popular here, admired for a knack of getting results on a modest budget.
Burnley has overachieved in recent times but Dyche says the work never stops. "[Maybe] we are making that look normal – but we know deep down it's not," says Dyche. "We know every game counts, every inch of every game counts. Football finds you out if you are not on it all the time."
On Wood Dyche is effusive in his praise, noting his ongoing development.
"I'd done a lot of homework on him, seen him at all his varying clubs, the good spells, the not so good spells so I knew a lot about his game," he tells the Herald.
"Then [since] he has been with us, you see it on a daily basis. He makes for a good story so far…and it is so far. I think he has a lot more to come."
Dyche particularly admires Wood's goalscoring instinct and intent. "It's not just his heading ability," adds Dyche, about the player who is equal top in the Premier League with goals from the air this season (five).
"He's two footed, he's got a variance of finish which I like; he can hit the power one, he can shape it and he can slide it in and he's got a goal scorers' knack. He can nick a goal out of nothing at times."
Burnley fullback Charlie Taylor has played alongside Wood since 2015. "I was with him at Leeds so I know him better than a lot of people here," says Taylor.
"He's got better season on season, the quality of his strikes, his goals, his all-round play. He's not got to his prime yet so can be a top class striker in the Premier League for a good few years yet."
Above the main training field, a large sign proclaims 'It's a Way of Life - Legs, Hearts, Minds', a mantra that Dyche has adopted for his team.
"Our LEGS will carry us to give a physical advantage. The passion we absorb from our fans and predecessors will fill our HEARTS as we become one. With guile and experience we will be prepared for any opposition, the challenge before us to excel is clear in our MINDS."
The stadium in the centre of town, and it's a thing of beauty.
With four banked grandstands and old-style turnstiles, you can feel the history. Burnley first ran out here in 1883 and only two English clubs, Stoke City and Preston North End, have been in continuous residence for a longer period.
The outside walls of the stadium are dedicated to Burnley legends, while inside reception an honours board lists the club's achievements. One of the 12 founding members of the Football League, Burnley have been champions of England twice (1920-21 and 1960-61).
They also finished League runners up in 1962 – reaching the FA Cup final the same year – but have endured many tough times since then. The nadir was in 1987, when they narrowly escaped being relegated from the fourth division. "For a club like Burnley to be where they are is just amazing," says Ian, a local security guard.
"Especially for those of us that remember the bad old days." Between 1980-2000 Burnley bounced between the third and fourth tiers. In 2009 they returned to the Premier League - 33 years after they were last in the first division – but went straight back down.
There was another single season at the summit in 2014-15, before they returned in 2016-17.
"A group of local businessmen have been directors of the club for a long time," explains their media manager.
"They backed the team in the hard times and now they are enjoying the rewards of the Premier League."
The club shop beside the stadium isn't on the industrial scale of Anfield or Old Trafford but has a wide range, including Burnley themed chocolate bars.
Wood is prominent in their 2020 calendar and there are postcards and A4 photos of the New Zealander.
"He's a good lad, your boy," says the shop manager, adding that Wood has popped in a few times and is always friendly.
"He's done well here, really well."
Seeking sustenance, I step into a pub across the road, one of several adjacent to the ground. "Food? No, we don't do food luv," says the barmaid. "You won't find nowt round here. Just drinks."
A customer instructs her to "mind me pint" and offers to walk me to Wetherspoon's pub, about half a kilometre away.
Carl is "Burnley through and through", pointing out the bus stop where his parents first met, across the road from the local night club. Work commitments mean he doesn't usually go to matches but he understands the importance of Burnley FC.
"They lift the town," he says. "It's not the nicest place here, to be honest and it can be a hard life. But the football team make everybody proud."
That's obvious on match day. The streets surrounding Turf Moor are packed with fans, almost all wearing replica tops. The surrounding pubs display signs saying `No away fans' in their windows – to avoid trouble – but there's a friendly atmosphere.
Inside the Royal Dyche pub it's heaving. A match day hub for Burnley fans, it was renamed in 2018, in honour of the popular manager. 'We were doing really well in the Premier League and had just gone fourth," explains publican Justine Lorriman.
"As a joke, we announced that we would change the name of the pub (then the Princess Royal) if Burnley got into Europe. It all gained momentum and I was quite nervous, as I hadn't asked my landlord permission." Burnley finished 7th – qualifying for European football for the first time in half a century – and the Royal Dyche was born. "We had to do it," says Justine. "I didn't want to be known as the pub that didn't live up to its word."
The quirky move has attracted plenty of attention. "It went nationwide in the media," says Justine. "Next thing you know I've got someone from New Zealand asking me questions too."
Lorriman is a season ticket holder – "I dash to the game at five to three and as soon as the final whistle goes I run back and get behind the bar" – and has been impressed with Wood's contribution.
"I guess we were a bit surprised, but he proved how good he was when he was at Leeds," says Lorriman.
"He's made a vital impact on and off the ball and with his goals. Hopefully he is going to be here for quite some time."
Lifetime Clarets fan Colin, wearing a custom-made Hawaiian style Burnley shirt, is attending the match with his son.
"The town has 80,000 population and they get 20 odd thousand to the game," says the 59-year-old. "It's like a little village. It's homely, friendly, with a bit of banter." He's a big fan of Wood, who "terrorises opposition defences".
"He's been really good for us," says Colin. "I'd seen him [playing for] Leicester and Brighton so you almost forget he's a New Zealander. He's one of us really, in disguise."
W ood and the Burnley team arrive at the stadium just before 2pm, greeted by a throng of fans outside the gates.
The match day programme resembles a book (78 pages, three pounds) and features a smiling Wood on the back cover. Inside the striker talks about his recent contract extension to 2023 ("it was a no brainer"), his heading prowess and the relationship with strike partner Ashley Barnes, while also revealing that shirts from Sergio Ramos and Romelu Lukaku are prominent in his collection.
The match kicks off to a cacophony of noise. Wood has some nice early touches; combining well for a one-two pass with Barnes and providing another cushioned lay off for a shooting chance. But the home side struggle for rhythm and can't get a foothold in midfield, and Crystal Palace take a deserved lead right on halftime, with Wilfried Zaha beating goalkeeper Nick Pope at his near post.
Halftime time food choices aren't complicated – `Big Eat Potato and Meat Pie', 'Potato, Cheese and Onion Pie', 'Peppered Steak Pie' or a 'Rollover Hotdog' (all three pounds) while the Bovril drink is a popular choice among the packed concourse, as 'Roxanne' plays over the speakers.
Burnley, unlike many of its Premier League rivals, remains a community team. There are plenty of supporters clubs around England and the world, but the vast majority of the Turf Moor crowd are drawn from Lancashire, reflected in the billboards around the ground.
There's one for Hollands – 'A proper Lancashire baker since 1851', another for a local electronics store while CWR Scaffolds promise 'the perfect erection'. Zaha continues to cause problems early in the second half, drawing an early yellow card, prompting chants of 'You soft bastard.'
Burnley are pushing harder, but the visitors look sharper.
"Get a foot in Clarets, challenge!" yells a nearby fan, amidst other cries of "C'mon Burnley!"
A flashpoint for Wood arrives in the 57th minute, as a miscued defensive header puts him through on goal. As the crowd rise in expectation, he blasts over the bar, from eight yards out on the angle. Wood holds his head in his hands, while the palpable sense of shock around the ground reflects his reputation as an ace finisher.
But he recovers quickly, going close three minutes later with a header cleared off the line.
As the home crowd will their team on, there's still time for humour, with a sarcastic standing ovation for the referee after he awards a Burnley free kick. But a defensive error opens the door for Palace to claim their second goal, as darkness descends on Turf Moor.
Wood has one last chance late, drawing a sharp save. 'It just wasn't our day – all in all" was Dyche's succinct post-match summary. "It's a shame for your boy," says one local scribe.
"But he's a strong lad Chris, he'll be fine." And he was. Wood didn't want to dwell on his miss, which was mentioned on BBC's Match of the Day that night and labelled a golden chance in the Sunday newspapers.
"As I showed, you miss a big opportunity like that, but two minutes later there is a headed opportunity that you have to get on target," says Wood.
"If you are not in the right headspace you won't get those chances so you have to put it to the back of your mind, get it out of the way and carry on, because ultimately you will have more chances in that game, or the next one, to be ready for."
Wood has found his ideal niche in Burnley, with a relationship of mutual affection with the fans. "They are very passionate," says Wood. "It's a very small town but they turn out in force and they love it. They are always supporting the team – they are fantastic in that way and make sure we are on the right [track]."
After more than 100 games for Burnley – does he have a favourite moment?
"Each season is different and has its highs and lows," says Wood. "In my first season to finish seventh was fantastic but we [also] went through a spell of 12 games without a win.
"You have your challenges and your tough moments [and] you enjoy the thrill of staying up and seeing how far you can go.
"It's hard to nail down one particular moment. But anytime I score a goal for this club is fantastic because ultimately scoring in the Premier League was what I wanted to do when I was a kid growing up. To be able to play out that dream is amazing."