GAA Football

Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell have left a big hole in Armagh attack says Charlie Vernon

Jamie Clarke has opted out of the Armagh panel this year as he is travelling

EXPERIENCED defender Charlie Vernon has acknowledged that Armagh will sorely miss the scoring threat of absent stars Jamie Clarke and Stefan ‘Soupy’ Campbell this season – and admits playing inter-county football has become more difficult in recent years.

Speaking in today’s edition ahead of Armagh’s NFL Division Three campaign, the Armagh Harps clubman concedes the perceived lack of scoring threat in the squad could be their biggest issue in 2018.

Last year’s panellists James Morgan, Shea Heffron, Ciaran O’Hanlon and Oisin O’Neill have stepped away ahead of the new season while veteran defender Ciaran McKeever has retired.

Vernon revealed the loss of so many good players from last year has had a deflating impact on him given that he has been involved with the county squad since 2005 and was hoping that they could build on last year's encouraging Championship campaign that saw the Orchard men reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

“We felt like we were getting somewhere and then when you come back this year you have a mountain to climb with Jamie [Clarke], ‘Soupy’ and stuff away… They’re quality forwards – and quality forwards are like hen’s teeth in Armagh. It’s been almost a traditional problem with us.

“We’ve plenty of good defenders and middle third players and it’s just trying to get a marquee scoring forward and unfortunately when players of that calibre step away it does leave a big hole in terms of quality.

“But that’s the nature of football – you don’t have a permanent team and each county will have their own story to tell in that regard with players leaving.”

The 31-year-old defender added: “We have a lot of quality lads coming through who have a great attitude - but you need experience, you need to be able to convert your chances and I can nearly foresee that being a bit of an issue for us but it’s up to us to find the solutions.”

Armagh Harps newcomer Ryan McShane, Maghery duo Ben Crealey and Ciaran Higgins and the returning Micael McKenna will undoubtedly add quality to the Orchard ranks this season.

Vernon celebrated his 31st birthday over Christmas and is living in Magherafelt with his wife Joanne and young son, Charlie Og.

While he feels physically fit to continue playing at the highest level, the 2008 Ulster-winning medallist says it’s getting increasingly difficult to play inter-county football.

“You have to find a balance and you do your best,” he said.

“Most of the time, you can keep it on an even keel. You have to sacrifice certain things that you mightn’t want to, but that’s just the nature of it.

“If you want to be competitive and want to be playing at a high level you have to make those choices; choices that all sports people have to make.

“You enjoy it when you’re winning and you enjoy the competitive nature of it and trying to be the best that you can. That has always been coached and ingrained in me from underage coaches and parents. You’re really just trying to give what you have. When you’re doing it for so long, it’s part of what you do and who you are. You just keep going.”

Vernon’s performances both at club and county level in 2017 were hugely encouraging and even though he’s at the latter end of his career he has no intentions of quitting just yet.

“A wise man once told me: ‘You’re better leaving the stage with the crowd wanting more than booing you off.’ It’s a good way of putting it.

“What I wouldn’t want to do is be there a year longer than I should and be taking a young player’s spot who is mad looking it and wants the opportunity. I would want to go before I reach that stage but I don’t feel like I’m at that stage yet.”

Armagh have fitness doubts over Brendan Donaghy, Ben Crealey and Ethan Rafftery for their opening League clash at home to Sligo on January 28 and face Donegal in a Dr McKenna Cup semi-final on Saturday evening (Ballybofey 6pm).

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