The origin story of All Whites 'boy wonder' Chris Wood

The origin story of All Whites 'boy wonder' Chris Wood Chris Wood during the New Zealand All Whites v Costa Rica World Cup Intercontinental Playoff Match. Photo /

19 September 2022

Next Sunday Newcastle United striker Chris Wood (School 2005-2008) will play his first match here in almost five years. Michael Burgess looks back at the formative years of New Zealand’s Premier League star.

Inside the dressing room of the St Paul’s Collegiate School First XI team, there was tension.

They were about to play their biggest match of the season, against local rivals Hamilton Boys' High School, who they hadn't beaten for years.

Though there was experience in the group, the key player, who everyone looked up to, was also the youngest, just a few months past his 14th birthday.

Chris Wood was in his second year at the Waikato school and the presence of the tall striker changed the equation.

"What I probably didn't know at the time, but what I subsequently came to understand more and more, and I think it applies now, even in the national team, is when Chris played for us, it wasn't just that he was an incredible striker," says St Paul’s coach and former All White Michael Groom. "It wasn't just that he could score goals prolifically."

"When he was in the team, all the other boys knew they could beat anybody. And I know that for a fact."

Wood scored that day, as St Paul’s beat Hamilton Boys for the first time in nine years, and Groom still marvels at his precocious impact.

"It wasn't just what he brought to the team with his ability and things like that, it’s what every other player felt and their game lifted as a consequence," says Groom. "It was palpable. They found something more within themselves.

"That’s something that has continued and I'm pretty sure that those boys who represent New Zealand now, they too would believe that when he is in the team, we can beat anybody."

Next Sunday at Eden Park (4pm) Wood will run out on New Zealand soil for the first time since November 2017.

It’s been a remarkable five years.

The last time Wood returned home he had just completed his move to Burnley, after a prolific stint for Leeds (44 goals in 88 games) in the Championship.

Many have struggled with the step up but Wood adapted superbly.

He scored on his Burnley debut, then again a week later in his first home match. Wood went on to score 53 times for Burnley in 165 games, earning a record £25 million transfer to Newcastle.

It continued a pattern in England. Wood had enjoyed productive spells with Brighton, Millwall, Leicester City and Birmingham in the Championship and League One, then between 2017 and 2021 was one of only eight Premier League players to have notched at least 10 goals in four consecutive seasons.

This year he also eclipsed Vaughan Coveny’s national record of 29 and now has 33 from 68 All Whites appearances.

"Even when he was young, he seemed to have instinctive and innate ability to always score," recalls Groom. "I wonder whether he knows that it’s always going to happen because he’s gifted with it. Maybe deep down he has a knowledge that this is his music. This is what he was born to do."

As a child, Wood played for Onehunga FC and Onehunga Sports in Auckland, before his family moved to Cambridge when he was 11.

While still attending Wynton Rufer’s academy up in Auckland, he joined the local Cambridge club and was also enrolled in Groom’s Samba Style Soccer school, where Futsal was used to emphasise Brazilian tricks and technique.

"I was very fortunate, with the arrival of a golden generation," says Groom, who also had future New Zealand age group representatives Adam Thomas, Michael Built and Colin Murphy in his program.

Wood stood out, even if he was less suited to futsal than some of his nimble teammates.

"From an early age Chris had incredible self-belief but that was counter-pointed by his humility, respect and willingness to learn," says Groom.

Wood was progressing steadily at Cambridge and playing football almost every evening, but parents Grant and Julie were determined to keep his feet on the ground.

"Some parents in New Zealand blow smoke up their kid’s arse," says Grant Wood. "We would never really do that; we would just say 'get out and do it'. He would say, 'What did I do wrong? What could I improve on? We were open and honest. You are only as good as the next game.

"But you can't berate a boy either, yelling and screaming from the sideline. That’s not doing the kid any favours. It’s better just to have that quiet word afterwards."

Wood was a standout at St Paul’s, the focal point even as a 14-year-old in Year 10.

Aside from the long awaited win over Hamilton Boys, Groom also has fond memories of a satellite tournament in Dunedin, where St Paul’s needed to finish among the top 10 to qualify for the national premier event.

"We got to the last game and I remember being in the motel saying to the boys, 'Listen, if we can win this one and get top ten, we're on the way'," says Groom.

St Paul’s started badly and were 3-0 down with 15 minutes to play, before Wood grabbed a late hat-trick and they eventually progressed on penalties.

"I was walking out to shake hands with the referee and Chris walked past," says Groom. "You know what he said to me? 'There’s your 10th place'."

The teenager had an "unshakeable" self-belief rare at any age.

"I played for New Zealand as a striker, but if I got in a couple of positions and missed shots that I should have scored from, the next time maybe I might think, well, I might lay the next one off," says Groom. "That wouldn't deter Chris at all. He would just go for the third one and it would go into the top corner."

Michael Built, who captained New Zealand at the 2009 Fifa Under-17 World Cup, was a teammate at St Paul’s.

"He could always strike the ball unbelievably well and had that aerial presence," says Built. "He was a menace in the area. "Technically he wasn't too different to many of the other lads, but he had that physical presence that you still see today."

Towards the end of the 2006 season Wood made his debut for Cambridge in the Northern League second division, scoring a goal off the bench in his first senior game.

The following summer he switched to Hamilton Wanderers – two divisions higher – after being spotted playing for St Paul’s. Current Wanderers general manager Gurdeep Rana was a 33 year-old on the fringes of that squad.

"We heard about a young lad that was going to come and train with us," says Rana. "He made an immediate impression. He was almost as tall then as he is now; Obviously not the same stature – he was a young kid – but he looked like a man."

Wood played a few reserve games, before being asked to sit on the bench for the first team.

"He came on, scored a back post header that most other guys wouldn't have got to and the rest just took care of itself," says Rana.

Wood was 15, during an era when many players were in their late 20s or 30s, travelling to Auckland every second week for games.

"The lads were having a few beers at the back of the bus," says Rana. "I would sit at the front and give him a can of Lift plus, just so he didn't feel out of place. We made sure he didn't stray. He was a shy young kid, but I wouldn't say he was shy on the field."

Wood also turned out for Waikato FC in the NZFC that summer, before a prolific second season with Wanderers.

"It felt like he had been there a very long time," says Rana. "But he had only been there a year and a half."

Towards the end of that season then Wanderers coach Roger Wilkinson arranged a trial at West Bromwich Albion, where he had previously worked as an academy coach.

"He turned up at West Brom to be given an opportunity as kids did back then," says Rana. "Often three or four weeks later they would have an experience and be shipped off back home. But he did very well in training and games and everything took off within the first few months."

The rest is history. In the past 14 years Wood has accumulated 478 senior matches as a professional in England, with a staggering 157 goals.

"We still talk about it now," says Built. "It continues to amaze me, how well he has done. It is still underrated in this country, playing in the best league in the world and scoring goals.

"No one would have anticipated him reaching the heights he has done. He has had to ride some tough times and being a striker, if you are not scoring goals, you get a lot of stick from the fans. You have to be strong."

Groom has the best perspective. The 63-year-old still teaches English at St Paul’s and has images of Wood displayed in his classroom.

"I want the students to believe that they can go from Hamilton, and they can stride the stadiums of the world," says Groom. "Chris has been an inspiration. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that young kids growing up in New Zealand, are going to know it’s possible; you can go to Old Trafford and you can score against Manchester United.

"Chris has fertilised the dreams of all the young players in New Zealand. He’s a pioneer in that respect, scoring goals at these hallowed venues. Maybe it’s more powerful because of that and that’s an incredible legacy to leave as a sportsman.

"As long as they know who he is, they're going to maybe have their own dreams that they can follow, which is pretty amazing."

(Source: Michael Burgess - NZ Herald)