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All-rounder Woods has class to lead Red Hands to grab glory

Tyrone v Tipperary, All-Ireland Ladies IFC Final: Croke Park, Sunday, 1.45pm

By Declan Bogue

Consider the sporting schedule of Tyrone ladies' Gaelic football captain Neamh Woods for a moment.

This Sunday, she will lead the Red Hands out onto the Croke Park pitch to face Tipperary in the All-Ireland Intermediate final.

In a fortnight, she will be back in the netball singlet of Northern Ireland as they compete in the European Netball Championships in Cardiff. In the middle of January there will be a round of World Cup Qualifiers in Perth, Scotland and come Easter, she will be packing her bags for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

"I suppose it's like what I would say to the kids at school," she says of her role as PE teacher in St Ciaran's College, Ballygawley.

"If you love something you are willing to base your life around it. It takes a lot of time, a lot of commitment. But unless you really loved it then you couldn't give your commitment to it."

All things considered, she was always going to be drawn to Gaelic football. Her father, Seamus Woods, played midfield for Tyrone throughout the hungry decade of the '70s and was a key figure of Carrickmore's three Tyrone Championships from 1977 to '79, along with his brothers Canice and Laurence.

Like many young girls, she played football with her local club Drumragh on the outskirts of Omagh until the natural cut off point of under 14s. She had been fully prepared to play for Carrickmore ladies until club Chairman Aidy O'Kane decided to form a ladies' wing of the club and they started fielding in 2003.

Nowadays, Seamus is the ladies' manager in his third season.

"Daddy managed us two years ago when we came out of Junior football and we were very young," Neamh explains.

"I would be one of the oldest and a lot of the girls would be 15, 16 years of age. We won the Junior league to come out of Junior football for the first time in our history which was lovely, winning that trophy with him as very much part of it."

On Tuesday she made the trip down to Croke Park for the photocall. She hadn't been as close to the pitch since 2010, when Tyrone made the senior final but lost out to Dublin.

At the time, she was a teenager. A lot of that team are now gone. Indeed, one of their key players, Sarah Connolly, is now their strength and conditioning coach with some holding out hope she may come back to play after returning to club action with Errigal Ciaran this year.

Along with Gemma Begley, Shannon Lynch and Shannon Cunningham, Woods has bridged the two generations of Croke Park teams.

She was always destined for captaincy. Throughout her underage career she held the role coming through the ranks. Although just turned 20, she was handed the senior role in 2011. In 2012 she had hip surgery and just returned for the Championship, while Begley has also held the role in recent years.

Earlier this year, the Tyrone manager Gerry Moane spoke of the benefit of having Woods as captain, a player that led by example.

"Better than ever. One of a kind, different class, different league. A real leader. That's why she is captain of Tyrone," was his verdict.

An interesting facet of that time is how she has taught a sizeable contingent of the present panel.

Last year St Ciaran's won the Ulster under-20 ladies' Championship and reached the All-Ireland final where they lost to John the Baptist of Limerick. Woods was managing her current county colleagues Shauna and Shannon Stevenson, Chloe McCaffrey, Maria Canavan and Meabh Corrigan.

As Croke Park prepares for another bumper crowd in for the ladies' finals, Woods is ideally positioned to assess the increase in popularity of the ladies' code.

The clever sponsorship by Lidl, the televised drip-drip effect from TG4 and a growing awareness of sponsors mean that McAleer and Rushe are not just happy to be jersey sponsors of the men's senior footballers and hurlers, but the ladies' footballers also.

"I suppose when you look at where it has gone in the last 10 years, ladies' football has grown massively," Woods states.

"There is a greater interest in it, greater media coverage in it and I suppose that also increases participation, people's interest in the game. I know looking at my own example in school, the children all watch the games on TG4 and a lot of them were at the games for the quarter-final and the semi-final.

"Whereas 10 years ago it wouldn't have been the case. Certainly you wouldn't have the level of support we do have now."

If there is a slight tinge of disappointment, it comes with the seemingly unnecessary fixture clash the Tyrone county board has created for themselves.

Take Paudge Quinn for example. The first Tyrone man to score a goal in an All-Ireland final will be forced into making a tough decision this Sunday if he wants to see his daughter Shannon play an All-Ireland final in Croke Park, or instead, go and watch his son Eoin compete as Errigal Ciaran take on Carrickmore in the Tyrone Championship.

"I think the clubs themselves are very disappointed. It's not their call," pointed out Woods over the sorry debacle.

Still, there is a cup to be played for. Tipperary stand in the way. They had an unbeaten National League in Division Three while Tyrone lost out on a league semi-final slot in Division Two through score difference.

"You can't read too much into the National League," says Woods in time-honoured fashion.

"I know myself, our team has evolved and changed over the last few months and other girls have come in.

"I am sure Tipperary will be the same, you can never read too much into the National League as regards the Championship. It is fair to say though that they have had an excellent campaign and they have been unbeaten."

But there's always a first for everything.

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