Rory Woods: Combat and creativity

IMAGINE the imposing figure of Rory Woods charging towards you on a GAA pitch. Now imagine the imposing figure of Rory Woods charging towards you with a hurley stick in his hand. “Nurse…”

For those who followed Monaghan from afar in the ‘noughties’ that would have been the main takeaway when analysing Woods. A man who could physically dominate the other team, and who was well known for putting people on their arses with shuddering shoulders charges.

To reduce his influence to just the combative is grossly unfair though. There was the creative, too.

From making his debut in 2002 on a day when Rory Gallagher took the Oriel county for an incredible 3-9, Woods represented his county 29 times in the championship. He contributed 2-39 with 2-33 of that coming from play. Of the 20 games he started between ‘02 and his final game against Kildare in 2010, he only failed to raise a flag in five of them.

Then there was his assist count. A fine kick-passer, Woods’s deliveries regularly allowed his fellow forwards to get on the front foot with the Woods-Freeman combination proving particularly productive.

And he had speed, plenty of speed, especially over those first, vital 10 yards. Many a man was left trailing in his wake and dispossessing him when he had collected the ball cleanly was like trying to pull Excalibur from stone.

In short, he was a fine footballer – something he does not get enough credit for.

Now about that hurl. Woods may have represented Donaghmoyne with distinction, but it was with Castleblayney where he started his career. That wasn’t unusual seeing as he is a nephew of Eugene ‘Nudie’ Hughes. What was unusual was that he represented the Faugh’s almost exclusively in hurling.

He won a number of senior county titles with Castleblayney too, and in 2006 he was called into the Ulster Railway Cup panel, the first Monaghan hurler to get the call since Clontibret’s Mick O’Dowd.

In the latter stages of his playing days he represented the Ulster Hurling Club in New York and earned a Junior title after their 2013 win over Hoboken Guards.

“’Nudie’ is ‘Nudie’ so you were probably going to be judged a bit on what he’s done,” said Woods. “I wouldn’t say there was that much pressure. He is a different name than me.

I started out in ‘Blayney and eventually moved out to my father’s club, that’s where I’m living now. If I had stayed with ‘Blayney it might have been a different story.

I came out to Donaghmoyne in ’96 or so. I would have been 14. I wasn’t really playing football in ‘Blayney. The fellas I hung around with were playing hurling more than the football.

I really enjoyed the hurling. All the fellas I was friends with played it when we were younger. From 10 to 14, football wasn’t really on the agenda. It was hurling, hurling, hurling, going to the Féiles and things like that.

We went to Galway for a Féile and to Knockaderry in Limerick. They were two very good weekends. People are welcoming you into your home and it’s a great experience for any young lad. There is such a buzz on those trips.

I never thought about playing on or anything (for the Monaghan hurlers). I played a bit but the football was soon number one. Especially given how our county is.”

About the same time Woods joined Donaghmoyne, the club earned their third Intermediate title following a 1996 final victory over Ballybay. Soon after Woods linked up with the Fontenoy’s senior team.

I came in when I was 17. I think it was the year after the final actually,” he said.

We were back up at senior after that win so I got the last three or four games of the season. It was a big step up but I didn’t find it too bad. I know some other lads would find it tougher.

What I found tough was the step up from county minor to county u-21. I thought it was day and night.

Tyrone beat us in three semi-finals at u-21 level, it was that great Tyrone team. You had (Stephen) O’Neill and (Owen) Mulligan and Cormac McAnallen and players like that. They were just a machine.

We were a right good team but we were unfortunate. There was my age-group and then the ones just ahead of me, the likes of Gary McQuaid. We just came up against such a special team.

They beat us by a point one day in Ballybay so we weren’t that far away. If we had gotten a win over them in that period then you wouldn’t know if it would have changed things moving up because they beat us so much as senior level.

Our minor team didn’t do much. I remember we played Down in a Memorial Cup match in Magheracloone and we beat them in the final by 10 or 12 points. That was a couple of weeks before the championship started.

They went on to win the All-Ireland with Brendan Grant and Ronan Sexton and Benny Coulter and all those boys. We had a very bad start against Fermanagh and we were six or seven points down at half-time. We came back to get level but conceded a late free and that put us out of it.

We were really good too. There was Tommy (Freeman) and Eoin (Lennon), Dick Clerkin, Paul Finlay, Shane Duffy. It was a good team.”

Tyrone, and to a lesser extent Fermanagh, may have provided underage Farney heartache for Woods, but he was soon called into the Monaghan senior squad by Jack McCarville. Woods had been one of the star forwards in the 2001 Monaghan Championship, with a last-gasp winner against Carrickmacross a particular highlight, and McCarville had already made his approach.

I think it was 2001 when I came into the senior panel, I was still u-21 that year,” said Woods.

I came in for Jack and it was a mixed bag. Fermanagh beat us in the championship in 2002 on my championship debut. I thought I had a really good first half, but I was taken off just after half-time.

Rory Gallagher was banging in 3-9 at the other end, the day of the record. The manager started taking off forwards, it’s hard to understand it.”

A defeat to Louth in the first round of the Qualifiers brought McCarville’s reign to an end. In his place came three-time All-Ireland winner and Meath legend Colm Coyle.

Woods didn’t have a perfect relationship with Coyle during their time working together, but there were some good days for the team.

Top of the list was the 2003 Ulster preliminary round clash when Armagh arrived at Clones as All-Ireland champions and were left licking their wounds as the name ‘Paul Finlay’ came to national prominence.

Prior to that clash, the Farney squad headed to Portugal for a four-day training camp. The year before the Orchard county had famously headed to La Manga, and when the guffaws died down they were All-Ireland champions and thus a trend was formed.

We went out there and we trained damn hard,” said Woods. “On the last night we went out for a meal and had a few beers. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we went stone mad on it, we really didn’t.

Declan Brennan was there and you couldn’t have wanted for a better training camp.

It was new to us. We trained twice a day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and we did our recovery sessions and all. You had a meal and a few drinks on the last night, but it wasn’t mad. The whole thing was pretty professional, especially where we were coming from.

You have to remember we were down in Division Four playing the Wexfords and Carlows. No disrespect to them but that’s where Monaghan football was at at that time.

I came on for a few minutes at the end of the Armagh game. You’re always disappointed when you’re not starting.

I thought myself that I should have been starting but it was horses for courses with certain managers. You were trying to get your way in but I didn’t start the next day against Down either.

We then played Westmeath and Meath and I fared out pretty well against Meath. They took me on early and I scored five or six points (0-6).”

Coyle’s second season didn’t go so well following back-to-back championship defeats to Armagh and Longford, with the manager stepping down a few weeks after the latter.

Woods felt that he didn’t get the minutes that he would have liked under Coyle, but points the finger at himself as well.

It could have been down to myself,” he admitted. “Maybe I didn’t prepare right and maybe I wasn’t fit enough for it. Still I felt I was better than some of the boys that were getting the start.

If I was looking back though maybe I’d say I wasn’t pushing myself enough on the fitness side of things. It was only really from ’06, ’07, ’08 that I started to tune in.”

Much of that was due to the influence of Martin McElkennon who Seamus McEnaney added to his backroom team after a sweep-out in his third year in charge of the team in 2007.

When he first came in I was saying ‘what’s this McElkennon boy going on about?’ It took me a while to accept it. He turned the whole thing upside down.

It took six months sitting on the bench looking at him and saying ‘what are you at lad?’ Then the penny finally dropped. It was me that had the problem, not Marty.

I remember the first while with Martin. We played a challenge match up in Corduff, it might have been against Crossmaglen and I’ll never forget it. It was October or December and Marty did a warm-up and I was gone after it. It was completely different to what we were used to doing.

I never bought into it and I sat on the bench for the league. I didn’t mind that, I didn’t like playing National League. There were only a few league games a year that would get me motivated, I preferred the hard ground.

I think we played Down in the Marshes in 2007. Dermot McArdle never started and JP Mone never started. We were in the Hillgrove after and it was the first time we had beaten Down in the championship in a long time, Down hadn’t been beaten in the Marshes for 30 years or something.

In the Hillgrove ‘Strimmer’ (McArdle) says to me ‘don’t you be eating your dinner.’ The three of us, myself, ‘Strimmer’ and JP, headed to the ‘Blayney Faugh’s ground and we started our training that evening. We were up and down the steps in ‘Blayney, flipping tyres at the bottom and then back up and down the steps.

“’Strimmer’ said ‘we’re not sitting on the bench the next time’ and when it came to Derry the next day we were all playing.”

If it had been anyone other than McEnaney who had brought in McElkennon, Woods maybe wouldn’t have had the patience to wait for that eureka moment. As it was, ‘Banty’ had earned his respect – and then some.

Everything Seamus did, and does, he did it for the good of Monaghan,” he said.

If he can see that he can get something working better, he’ll go and do it. People can say whatever they want about him but any Monaghan man will tell you that his heart is in the right place.

Seamus would be very loyal, especially boys around south Monaghan. Normally the county panel would be made up of Scotstown, Clontibret, Ballybay and ‘Blayney and they wouldn’t come down our way at all.

Seamus knew boys who were good enough, he had plenty of faith and respect for boys. He’d say to me ‘I need you now for these next few months, go and get yourself in good shape.’

He had a lot of trust in his players, maybe he had too much at the end in players like myself.

It wasn’t always about the football either. If you had something going on in your personal life then he’d be over to you asking ‘what can I do?’

I know that’s the norm now with counties, but he was doing that 15 or 20 years ago.”

No doubt Woods’s appreciation for McEnaney heightened early on as his manager went to bat for him following the suspension that arose from Monaghan’s National League semi-final win over Derry in 2005.

The player had the dubious honour of being the first case heard by the GAA’s new Central Appeal Committee, but his 12-week ban stood after he was cited for kicking with the suspension originally proposed by the Games Administration Committee, who were days away from disbanding.

McEnaney asked at the time: “Are they trying to end his career here? Has he not suffered enough?”

That suffering was Woods missing out on Monaghan’s famous Division Two final win over Meath at Croke Park in May 2005, a result that sparked a blue and white pitch invasion.

The appeals continued after that match as Monaghan tried to have him cleared for the start of the championship, but despite McEnaney claiming that video evidence exonerated him from the accusation of kicking, he had to sit out the early parts of the summer.

It’s still a sore point, especially as that day in Dublin was the county’s first title at senior level since their Ulster success in 1988. Woods wasn’t involved and, in his opinion, over very little indeed.

It was terrible,” he said. “I got checked. I’m not sure who it was, Kevin McCloy or maybe Kevin McGuckin.

I went to make a tackle on someone else and he ran across me and checked me and I just swung out the leg and I tripped him. He never even laid down. He got up and laughed and then the linesman pulled the referee and put me in for in kicking.

If it was done now then yes, a definite black card. I had to sit out three months. I couldn’t even play for my club.

I was disappointed for the family especially, the aul fella. It was the first time in Croke Park for a long time. I didn’t give a shite really for myself, I knew I’d be back, but I was very disappointed for the family.

I wasn’t even going to go with the team the day of the match. I told Seamus I wasn’t going on and he turned to me and said ‘no, you’re coming with us’.

During the lockdown Dick Clerkin had some stuff up and I had never really watched it so I did. I couldn’t believe how well Monaghan played that day. Meath were a good side back then too.

I remember the mistake by the man at the end (Mark Ward flicking the ball to his own net when trying to punch it over the bar) so it was a mad finish. They played so well though and the Monaghan fans that came on at the end was unreal.”

Woods first involvement in that year’s championship was in the 2-14 to 1-7 round four Qualifier loss to Tyrone.

The scoreline was harsh. Monaghan led 1-4 to 0-1 at one stage and gave the Red Hands all they wanted before Sean Cavanagh turned on the style in the second half and Stevie O’Neill helped himself to 2-6.

We watched them. Armagh had beaten them in the Ulster final replay,” Woods said.

Chris Lawn and the wee Shane Sweeney boy were marking (Stevie) McDonnell and (Ronan) Clarke and they gave them nothing. Oisin McConville did the damage that day, the two other boys were held well.

I hadn’t played football in three months and then Seamus told me I was starting. I was on Chris Lawn and Tommy was on Sweeney. Tommy had him off after 15 minutes then Chris Lawn was taken off me. We were flying.

Tyrone got a bit tighter on us after that and after half-time I started to tire. I missed a goal against Pascal McConnell after about 15 minutes. We were four or five up at that stage. It was a one-on-one. I should have finished it. Tyrone’s Tyrone.”

Woods had a good scoring return in 2006, hitting 1-7 in four games, but defeat to Wexford meant that it was an early exit.

The following season produced the county’s first run to the Ulster final since their last Anglo Celt success in 1988.

Woods may have missed the fun in Newry in their first match, but after his tyre-flipping exploits in Castleblayney he produced one of his best performances for the county as he kicked three points in a 0-14 to 1-9 win over Derry at Casement Park.

Tommy got Man of the Match that day and I said to him ‘the only reason you got it was because I kicked every ball in to you!’

I didn’t even have to look to know where Tommy was, we just had that understanding.

The boys I played with in Monaghan would say get the ball to myself and Paul Finlay in the half-forward line.

I’ve always said with teams I’ve been involved with ‘why are we looking up to see where the man is?’

You don’t look where the man is, you look where the bit of grass is. You hit areas rather than men.”

Despite another fine display in the final, that familiar bogeyman loomed over Woods and his teammates as Tyrone won 1-15 to 1-13.

We came like a train at the end but we left it too late. In the first half we gave them too much respect and then we moved Vinny Corey to full-forward and it caused them all sorts of trouble.”

The side responded well with a 2-12 to 1-7 win over Donegal at Healy Park.

A few years ago in a piece in a national paper looking at the Monaghan-Donegal rivalry, it referenced Woods laughing in the face of Colm McFadden at the full-time whistle.

Woods was shown the piece but to this day still isn’t sure where the story originated from.

I don’t know where that came from because I was taken off with a few minutes to go and I headed straight down the tunnel. I never even saw him after it.

It was a real hot evening and I went into the dressing room after the match and I was as sick as I’ve ever felt after a game. I wasn’t fit to do the warm-down, I was gone.

I read that and I remembered that I had met Barry Monaghan in the tunnel and I swapped jerseys with him. Maybe someone got me mixed up with Dessie Mone!”

The reward was an All-Ireland quarter-final with Kerry and, just like the following year in a round four Qualifier, Monaghan tore into the Kingdom at Croke Park before coming up short by one-point and three-points respectively.

People say you make your own luck, but I thought we were very unlucky in that period. We never tipped into Croke Park and played a Tipperary or a Wexford.

Every time we went to Croke Park it was Tyrone or Kerry, Tyrone or Kerry. Maybe Kildare or Cork in a National League final.

When you go to Croke Park you expect to play the best teams but we never got the rub of a green. I never won in Croke Park. A load of boys had won in that League final against Meath, but I never won there and played six or seven times at it.”

In 2009 Monaghan didn’t get a run going and the following year Tyrone once again had their number in the Ulster final with Kildare compounding the misery six days later in what would be Woods’s last game for Monaghan. A few weeks later, he headed to New York.

I went out to play with Cork and there was work there as well,” he said. “Cork rang me to go out and play and I thought ‘why not?’

I came out for three months, came home for a weekend, then went back out until Christmas nearly. Different life, a different life altogether. You can work, you can earn money and you can party. You have a few pound in your pocket, not like this country.”

Woods travelled over again in 2010 before moving over there more long-term between 2011 and 2014.

Before he left, he tried his hand with a bit of rugby with the Monaghan club, although it was nothing too serious.

One of the boys I lived with played rugby with Monaghan,” he said. “I went down for the craic.

I only played one or two games but I enjoyed it, I wish I had gotten at it earlier. It was a good game, maybe it would have suited me a bit better than the Gaelic.

I love watching rugby, I would watch it all day if I could. There wasn’t much to it though, there only is Monaghan Rugby Club around here and no one from our area would play rugby. None of the schools would push it or anything.”

Whilst in the Big Apple, Woods decided to throw his lot in with the New York footballers for the 2013 season. Leitrim were due out in May and with all due respect to the Ridge county, they presented the biggest opportunity for a shock. That turned out to be a pipedream. Emlyn Mullian helped himself to a hat-trick and Woods’s second-half point mattered little in a 4-19 to 0-7 defeat.

We had Leitrim out there and I said that I was going to throw my hat into the ring,” he said.

Leitrim weren’t the best in Connacht and coming out to New York is different. It’s an astroturf pitch and if you get a real hot day that can have a big impact. Teams from home wouldn’t be used to it.

I trained really hard, not like you would at home, but better than you usually would in New York. I got myself into good shape and two weeks before the match they played a round of championship games in New York so everyone would be eligible.

Twenty minutes into the match my back started to seize and I couldn’t walk for a week. I don’t know what I did to myself and I only came on for the second half of that match.

If it had been a year or two later the result could have been different. New York went really at it then but in 2013 there were boys playing that probably weren’t county standard.

Leitrim showed a wee bit of class through Mulligan and a few others.”

On his return home, Woods lined out with his club for one more season and helped earn them promotion back to the senior ranks. He has also managed Clady in Armagh and this year he was managing an Oram side that reached the semi-finals of the Monaghan Junior Championship. Word is that the Oram players were highly impressed with his methods.

He’ll probably stick at the coaching although he thinks a year off is needed in 2021 to spend more time with the family.

Whatever happens in the future, he will look back fondly at a decade where he played a key part in helping Monaghan out of the doldrums and towards the upper echelons of Gaelic football. What he will look back most fondly on though is those friendships built and the days when the craic was mighty. They are what stick out.

We went there for about 10 years. There was stuff that had to be said at times, but for the majority of the time we got on like a club team.

Out on the training field and coming up to championship if you were playing A v B teams, there’s no doubt about it, you’d trample all over somebody just to get that white jersey instead of the blue one.

Inside the dressing room was a lot of fun though. A lot of people said I quit too early, I quit when I was 33. When I came back from America I just didn’t think I’d have it after being away for four years.

I was in intermediate football and I was getting taken off by a good friend of mine who was Donaghmoyne manager at the time, Noel Marron. I was just thinking ‘how am I going to go up to senior level to mark the likes of Drew Wylie and boys like that when I can’t take care of a couple of intermediate players.’

The one thing I do miss is the dressing room, the craic before training. I used to be sitting in the corner, myself and Tommy Freeman and Darren Hughes and Benny McKenna. We’d sit in the same corner and the craic would be great. I loved it.”

By Niall McCoy

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