HE'S taken the long way around, but Joel Wood is happy to finally be back at Maitland.
And he's welcomed the added responsibility of giving the Magpies an X-factor up front this Northern NSW NPL season.
The former competition golden boot and Newcastle Jet was in Byron Bay in 2017 and returned to Newcastle last year from overseas hoping to link with Maitland, where he played in 2014-15.
The Magpies, though, had no room left in their points cap on the eve of the season and they helped him instead join eventual wooden spooners Valentine. Wood was also close to a move back to Maitland mid-season after the Magpies lost players to injury.
Maitland went on to finish third before losing to Broadmeadow in the semi-finals, and captain Carl Thornton believes Wood could be the key to the Magpies going a step further this season.
"Last year we probably didn't score enough goals," Thornton said.
"We created enough chances but we just didn't have that X-factor up front.
"If [Wood] can bang away a few goals this year, we'll do really well."
Wood starts his comeback with Maitland on Saturday night at Cooks Square Park against Valentine, who beat Adamstown 2-1 in round one. Maitland, who had the bye last week, will be looking to Wood to spark their attack, especially after the loss of Matt Comerford and Josh Dutton-Black.
It's pressure the well-travelled striker gladly accepts.
"If you're going to play striker, you have to accept that there's always pressure to score goals. That's your major job so if there's no pressure on you, you're not going to thrive," Wood said.
"There's pressure there, and I want to score goals for the guys, so hopefully that's what I'm going to do, and also bring other players into the game as well. They lacked goals last year but also more of a target man, someone who's going to bring other players into the game, play a lot of one-twos, so hopefully I can be that man for them."
Maitland coach Mick Bolch said Wood had already shown his value, scoring four against Phoenix in a trial.
"He fits into the group well and he's been doing well," Bolch said. "He's super fit. He's 34 but you'd think he was 27."
A personal trainer, Wood said "I feel better this year than I have in many years".
"I've always looked after myself and I grew up doing triathlons and keeping fit," he said. "And I'm just being smarter as I get older, doing more strength and mobility work, which most people in this semi-professional league probably don't concentrate on. If you look after yourself, there's no reason you can't keep playing in this league for many years, maybe until I'm 50, who knows."