For Chris Wood, the last 12 months must have seemed like a checklist from a boyhood football fantasy. The teenage striker debuted as a 17-year-old in the hurly-burly of the English Premier League, made his national team debut before going on to provide a significant contribution as New Zealand ended an agonising 28-year wait for a return to the FIFA World Cup™. Now the powerfully-built Wood is set to feature heavily as the All Whites aim to make a dent at South Africa 2010.
By any measure, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the strapping West Bromwich Albion striker. A raft of injuries at the Midlands club in April last year saw Wood promoted to the first team and make his debut against Portsmouth, becoming one of just a handful of Kiwis to line up in England’s top-flight. The 19-year-old has featured frequently in the Baggies side this term helping the club bounce back to the Premier League after relegation last season. At just over 190cm and with a rigorous English season under his belt, don’t expect Wood to be physically intimidated in South Africa.
The New Zealanders have an abundance of options in the forward line, with Middlesbrough’s Chris Killen, A-League top-scorer Shane Smeltz, plus Rory Fallon, scorer of the goal which sent the Kiwis to South Africa, all jostling for a starting berth. Wood, however, has held his own despite the strong competition for places, making half a dozen appearances in the last year, a tally which included both legs of the famous qualification play-off victory over Bahrain.
The All Whites will line up in Group F with matches against Slovakia, world champions Italy and battle-hardened South American qualifiers Paraguay. All Whites coach Ricki Herbert, always one to believe in the maxim ‘if your old enough, your good enough’, is far from apprehensive about sending his towering teenage attacker into the fray next month.
"We've managed him in a certain way but there's something about him with his age and his build, he could be a little X-factor for us," stated Herbert of his 18-year-old striker. "He's a good balanced boy with a very good head on his shoulders and he's at a great club. The world is at his feet and I think the ingredients he has could be exciting for the team. People know Smeltz, Killen and Fallon, but not many people know Chris yet."
Strong in the air and deceptively nimble, Wood burst onto the scene at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 as a 15-year-old, playing all three group matches. Undoubtedly the most exciting young talent in New Zealand football – he has just collected his second consecutive national young player of the year award – Wood is the first to admit he is still learning his craft.
"I've progressed a lot this year,” he says. “It's been a good season both with the (West Bromwich Albion) first team and the national team. Things are going well. It's been a learning experience and I'm glad I've got my first season as a pro under my belt. Now I want to kick on with the rest of my career."
Already with a substitute appearance at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup on his résumé, Wood has now set himself a target for South Africa 2010. "My number one goal is to start. I'd like to start all three games, but my more realistic goal is to start one game."
Sister Chelsey is set to feature in her own FIFA World Cup this year as a member of the New Zealand U-20 squad for Germany 2010.
Wood is the only member of New Zealand’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad from the city of Hamilton.
Wood sits alongside Lee Norfolk (Ipswich), Danny Hay (Leeds), Ryan Nelsen (Blackburn) and Simon Elliott (Fulham) as the only New Zealanders to have played in the English Premier League.
Wood was only a month short of being eligible for last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup as New Zealand reached the knockout stage for the first time in a FIFA tournament.