When Chris Wood was 14, he was already a big unit. Strong and tall, he had been playing as a junior at Cambridge Football Club, in the Waikato.
He was also big on self–belief.
Wood was finally picked on the sub’s bench for a game in the Northern League’s second division.
As the match wore on, Wood finally got his chance.
Cambridge member Ken Hobern, a friend of the Wood family, was delighted and as the youngster went on as a sub, he promised the youngster $100 if he could score a goal.
Chris Wood’s first goal in senior football was just minutes away. His goal celebration included a joyous rubbing together of his fingertips, already anticipating his winnings.
He was about to get his first payment as a footballer.
Pictured: Wood is third from right on the back row. Photo: Masterpiece Photography.
So, where did Wood’s football career really start?
Born in Auckland in December 1991, Wood’s first club was Onehunga Sports, where he learned to enjoy team sport, encouraged by his parents, Grant and Julie.
Keen to learn more, he joined Wynrs, the Auckland–based academy established by former All White Wynton Rufer.
There, he was encouraged to develop his technique.
By the age of 11, the Wood family had moved to the Waikato rural town of Cambridge and he registered to play junior football with the local club.
Younger sister Chelsey had also taken to football and when the pair weren’t training with their club, they were practising by playing against each other.
Pictured: Wood is on the extreme left of the middle row. Photo: Masterpiece Photography.
By the time he was 14, the lanky youngster was ready to play senior football.
He made his Cambridge debut in the Northern League and ended the 2006 season with a trip to Napier to play for his club in the satellite section of the annual national U-19 tournament.
It was Wood’s first taste of controversy — all part of being an exceptional player.
Cambridge won the tournament’s satellite final but it quickly transpired that the squad contained two players, including Wood, who were only 14. Tournament rules stipulated the minimum age was 15 and Wood was a few weeks shy of his birthday.
As a result, Cambridge missed promotion to the main group at Napier.
But the talk about Wood — and the impact he had despite being deemed too young to play — all helped raise his profile.
That summer, Wood left Cambridge for Hamilton Wanderers, who played in a higher division of the Northern League, and who were a feeder to national league club Waikato FC.
His club coach was Roger Wilkinson who had previously been an academy coach with English club West Bromwich Albion.
Wood’s coach at school — the private Hamilton school of St Paul’s Collegiate — was Mike Groom, who played 20 games for the All Whites and was passionate about developing technique through samba–style football.
With the help of his coaches, Wood made the step up and became one of the youngest players in the national league.
By then, he had also come to the notice of national selectors and he was picked to play for New Zealand at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup.
Wilkinson decided it was time to help Wood chase his dream of professional football by arranging a trial at West Brom.
Another All White who helped with advice was defender Che Bunce who had also started his career as a junior at Cambridge.
Wood’s mother, Julie, told Stuff.co.nz: “We spoke to a couple of people before we made the decision to come over, (to the UK) one being Che Bunce, asking what do you think we should do, and he said if there’s one piece of advice, it’s that one of you travels with him to support, so that’s what we did.”
Julie Wood headed to England with her 16-year-old son for the trials that started his professional career.
2002: Cambridge juniors
2006: Cambridge seniors
2007: Waikato FC
2008: Hamilton Wanderers
2009: West Bromwich Albion
2010-2013: Loaned to Barnsley, Brighton & Hove Albion, Birmingham City, Bristol City, Millwall, Leicester City
2013: Leicester City
2015: Loaned to Ipswich Town
2015: Leeds United
2007: New Zealand U-17
2012: New Zealand U-23
2009: New Zealand
Enjoy this Sky Sports (UK) interview with Chris Wood recorded in February 2020:
Feature article: Chris Wood’s early days at Cambridge FC
Headline: How playing with the grown-ups in New Zealand helped turn Wood into a Premier League goalscorer
Click here to read a feature article published by the UK’s The Athletic in October 2019, describing Wood’s early development at Cambridge FC.
BBC World Service interview with Chris Wood
Click here to listen to a 2018 interview with Wood in which he describes his early football days.
This story is reproduced by permission from FANZ, the Official Magazine of Friends of Football New Zealand. To read the full feature, go to the online edition of FANZ here: