GAA Football

Tyrone's Neamh Woods happy to be facing Donegal before men's clash

Neamh Woods in action for Tyrone against Sligo in the 2017 TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Intermediate Championship semi-final.

FIXTURES permitting, Neamh Woods was always likely to be at Kingspan Breffni this Saturday – the bonus is that she’ll be on the pitch as well as watching from the stands later.

The Tyrone Ladies Football star is due to be part of a double-header against Donegal, with the two counties’ women’s team meeting at 2.45pm before the men clash at 5pm in their Ulster SFC semi-final.

Woods is doubly pleased that Mickey Harte’s men saw off Derry and Antrim to set up the last four clash as she knew Tyrone ladies would be playing before the second Ulster men’s semi-final.

When we spoke at the Ulster Championships launch in Dungannon, Woods commented: “Fingers crossed, if Tyrone men were to progress we would be playing before them, which would be a brilliant opportunity for us.

“We play Donegal and it’s a brilliant opportunity to raise the profile of our sport – that’s the way it should be and we’re delighted to be part of that.

“Definitely, it’s brilliant to see the integration at Ulster level between the ladies and the men. The profile of ladies football is continuing to grow and, from a ladies view, the effort and commitment we put into playing the game is the exact same as the men.”

As in the men’s game, Donegal are the provincial title-holders – the difference is that Tyrone ladies will be considered outsiders while the men are favourites after defeating Donegal en route to last year’s All-Ireland SFC Final.

“Donegal are certainly the benchmark for ladies football in Ulster,” acknowledged Woods “they’re the current Ulster senior champions. We look forward to playing them – those are the teams you want to be competing against. I’ve no doubt that we’re more than able to compete.”

Indeed, although Tyrone impressed in winning the All-Ireland Intermediate crown last year, beating Meath in an exciting final, she feels that the Red Hands can play with more freedom this term:

“Last season, no matter what game we were going to play, there was a level of expectation and pressure because we had lost the previous year’s All-Ireland [Intermediate] Final.

“It was brilliant to win, we enjoyed it – but it’s been and gone. It’s set us up well for the senior championship this year.

“It’s a nice position to be in where there isn’t that level of expectation. Realistically, we are going to be underdogs, so we can just enjoy our football and see where it takes us.”

Although Tyrone, under the management of Fermanagh man Gerry Moane, only finished seventh in Division Two of the Lidl NFL, Woods believes they’re better than that, and can show so this summer:

“Win or lose against Donegal, we’ll still have group games in July, then depending on how you go, maybe qualify for the quarter-final stages of the All-Ireland.

“We certainly do think we’re in the top eight. Personally I’d be bitterly disappointed if we don’t progress to an All-Ireland quarter-final.

“Looking at our squad, we’ve got great strength in depth, we’re not necessarily reliant on a set 15, it changes nearly every game that we play, which will stand us in good stead for those group games in July, back to back.”

Winning matters, obviously, but Woods plays for the love of the game. She laughs as the subject of age is side-stepped, saying: “I made my debut in 2006 against Armagh and I’m now currently the oldest in our team, we had a few retirements after last year, which leaves me the oldest. Here, I love it, and please God I’ll keep playing for another while yet.”

She’s seen the game develop incredibly during her playing career, recalling: “My club is Drumragh Sarsfield’s and we didn’t actually have a ladies team until I was 14, so I had to play with the boys up until U14. We’ve progressed to be playing at senior level.

“There were no comments made; you probably got a few strange looks when you lined out initially but other clubs were in the same boat. Physically, there wasn’t any difference between boys and girls up until U14 level; after then there would be significant difference. You just had to learn very quickly.

“I started playing for Tyrone at senior level when I was 16, progressed through the ranks there. I’ve had plenty of football over the years and I’ve enjoyed it all.”

Her involvement in the sport was almost certain, as she explains: “My mummy and daddy are both from Carrickmore so it was in the blood, I wasn’t going to miss out.

“The two of them are big GAA people and we were encouraged to play from a young age. To this day they’re a wonderful support to me, both on and off the field. I’m very fortunate that I had that tradition and culture at home”.

Those who turn up early at Kingspan Breffni this Saturday will be in for a treat, she reckons: “The ladies game is very open, it’s a lot easier on the eye to watch, in comparison to some of the men’s games.

“Attendance at All-Irelands Ladies Finals Day last year spoke volumes – the number of people who are interested in going and watching. The skill levels of the ladies game has increased drastically and it will continue to grow. That’s great to see”.

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