Young Tyrone duo out to emulate their heroes from 2018

Emma Conroy and Caitlin Donnelly watched on as the Red Hands claimed a famous intermediate title win in Croke Park six years ago

Aoibhinn McHugh and Grace Clifford
Aoibhinn McHugh and Grace Clifford Tyrone captain Aoibhinn McHugh and Kildare skipper Grace Clifford get acquainted at the launch of this weekend’s Lidl National Football League finals. The Red Hands will face the Lilywhites in the Division Two decider at Croke Park on Sunday (David Fitzgerald / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

WHEN Neamh Woods climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand in 2018 to lift the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup as Tyrone claimed the All-Ireland intermediate title, both Emma Conroy and Caitlin Donnelly were watching on.

As Tyrone underage players, they hoped one day they too would not only get the chance to play at Croke Park, but also climb those famous steps and win silverware with their county.

On Sunday, they have the opportunity to do just that when the Red Hands take on Kildare in the Division Two final.

At 21, Donnelly is the number one for Sean O’Kane’s side, while 18-year-old Conroy, who made her senior inter-county debut less than a year ago, coming in after captaining the county minors as the championship entered the All-Ireland stages, has established herself in the Tyrone attack, scoring 1-8 from the six league games she has played on their way to the final.

“I have always aspired to be her [Neamh Woods],” said Conroy, who also named her aunt, former Tyrone player Patricia O’Neill (then Conroy) as being a big influence for her.

“I actually have a photo with her when they won the All-Ireland intermediate championship final in 2018 and it just came back up this week and that could be us this August.

“Getting the chance to play with her right now [for their club Moy] and she was on the Tyrone team 10 years ago, growing up watching her, now playing with her and getting all the insights too.”

Donnelly also sees Woods as a role model but it would remiss of her not to also mention the All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper from 2018, Shannon Lynch, as another inspirational figure.

The Fintona Pearses player does not want to get ahead of herself, knowing the enormity of the challenge ahead of them on Sunday against favourites Kildare, who are unbeaten in 21 games across league and championship, but she has allowed herself to dream.

“I think it’s hard not to be thinking about winning and what it would mean. It would be unreal,” she said.

“I remember going to the 2018 All-Ireland intermediate final and watching the girls, standing like a wee fan behind the cup and everything, so it’s just so surreal to be going out now, playing with some of the players that played in that match.

“Neamh Woods and Shannon Lynch were the two players who I looked up to. Neamh Woods played unreal that day as well. Shannon made unreal saves as well. Just watching it, I remember they were just a brilliant team.

“It would mean a lot to the girls. We have been going hard since the start of last season, really pushed on. We have had girls missed out on things so it would mean a lot to us.”

Promotion to Division One is already in the bag for both finalists and Conroy is already looking forward to rubbing shoulders with the top players in the country week in, week out in 2025.

“When you are growing up, you are watching it on TV and you always aspire to be at that top level of football and for Tyrone to get back up there it’s unbelievable,” she said.

“Obviously, we want to focus on Kildare first but looking forward to next year and knowing you are playing the likes of Meath, Dublin and Armagh, it’s giving you that aspect of what you want to face in the coming years.”

It is something, she admits Tyrone did not necessarily set out to achieve at the start of the season but after just a few games, including a second-round win over senior side Tipperary, they began to realise something special could be unfolding.

“Coming in this year, we had no expectations,” said corner-forward Conroy.

“We were trying just to stay in Division Two, but from the first game everybody was clicking, and from then on, the second game, the third game, you just knew it was going to be a good season. To get into that Division Two final and to get promotion has been great for the county.”

Donnelly echoed those sentiments.

“The pressure is off, we are already promoted, but at this stage, reaching the final you don’t want to lose the game,” she said.

“We are going to give it a good go. Kildare are a brilliant team. They have lots of experience, they are on 20-something games without a loss now, so they are going to be hard to beat but definitely if there is a team that can, I think it’s us.”

Donnelly was Sinead McVey’s understudy last season and has taken a firm hold of the number one jersey this year with McVey no longer involved.

As a goalkeeper right through Tyrone’s underage ranks, Donnelly is fully aware of how the position is evolving and says that working with a dedicated goalkeeping coach is a must.

Sean O’Neill holds that role in the Tyrone set-up, and he will have been watching closely as Donnelly produced a number of important and impressive saves throughout Tyrone’s league campaign.

“I love it. Your backs rely on you a bit more to be there to support the play and I have definitely received a few balls back to me that I had to carry out a bit. I feel more involved now,” she said.

“Before, if your backline was in trouble you didn’t want to venture out too far but now it’s more acceptable for you to do that.

“It’s so important to have a goalkeeping coach. Going up through the ranks at underage, there was always a goalkeeping coach, but he might have only been in once a week. Now in seniors you are getting three nights a week goalkeeper training and it has definitely helped me a lot.

“Like before you would never have seen me dive, it just wasn’t my thing, but now I have tried to bring it into my game a lot more. These last few years, getting consistent goalkeeping coaching has definitely been a big plus.”