Memories of Charlie: Armagh stalwart Vernon 'exits stage left' after 14 years of service for the Orchard County
THE lad was Armagh mad and Charlie Vernon was his idol.
As a special treat, his family arranged for the Orchard County star to phone during his party and wish him a surprise ‘happy birthday'. They knew it would make his day.
When they were told that something had come up at work and Charlie couldn't make the call they understood but later, after the eight candles on the cake had been blown out and the presents had been opened, there was a knock at the front door.
When they opened it, Charlie Vernon was standing there - he couldn't phone so he visited instead and left the delighted youngster with a memory to last his lifetime.
It's important to note that the above incident, one of many no doubt, didn't come from Charlie and that's the measure of the man. He couldn't let a lad he didn't know down that day and over 14 seasons of unbroken service he never let Armagh down either.
Tall and physically imposing with safe hands and good feet, his hard-but-fair, wholehearted style made him respected by opponents and revered by his county's fans. Vernon was a natural midfielder but his own ambition came second as he played in every position except goalkeeper in the orange jersey.
Last month he called time on his 14-year career. It began in the winter of 2005 with Armagh in the All-Ireland mix under Joe Kernan and ended last summer with Charlie sat reluctantly on the Castlebar bench as Kieran McGeeney's men bowed out of the Qualifiers against Mayo.
Look at his blood-line and it's no surprise that sport has played such a central role in his life. His great-uncle Jackie was a legendary centre-half who played with Belfast Celtic, West Brom, Ireland, Northern Ireland and captained a Great Britain side against a Rest of Europe XI.
His grandfather Charlie (Jackie's brother) enjoyed Ulster Championship success for Antrim in both hurling and football and also represented Armagh in both codes while another sibling, great-uncle Harry, was the Antrim and Ulster goalkeeper for many years.
On St Patrick's Day in 1947, Jackie captained Ireland at sold-out Dalymount Park while, just up the road at packed Croke Park, Harry kept goal for Ulster in the Railway Cup final.
And talent hasn't skipped any generations. Charlie's late father, Charlie senior, was an Armagh Harps stalwart for many years and a quarter of the sprint relay team that held a long-standing Irish 4x100 record.
“That's where you got your pace from then?” I observe, a bit cheekily.
“Haha, well I didn't get all of it,” Charlie shoots back, taking the joke.
He wasn't renowned for speed but he was quick enough and stood out through his school days at St Patrick's, Armagh whether it was in basketball, golf or athletics. Gaelic Football was number one though and Vernon moved through underage squads at school, with Armagh Harps and with his county and was picked for the Ireland U17 International Rules team. Like his great-uncle Jackie, he captained Ireland as skipper of the U18 side for a tour of Australia the following year. Ireland won the series 2-1.
"It was a great honour," he says and afterwards he had conversations about making a career out of Aussie Rules. However, with both his parents teachers, education was king in the Vernon household and Charlie returned home to study Law and Accountancy at Queen's.
“Armagh were very successful during that period and there was an attraction to get involved in that too,” explains the Magherafelt-based accountant.
In the winter of 2005 the call he'd been waiting on arrived. Joe Kernan, architect of the 2002 Sam Maguire triumph, was on the other end of the line: Would Charlie join the panel for the 2006 season? Of course he would.
“I was 18, just started university and I was with the county U21 panel so, given the strength of the Armagh panel at that stage, I wasn't sure if or when I would get a senior call-up,” said Charlie, a Sigerson Cup winner with Queen's in 2007.
“I suppose I was going well with the U21s and university football was just starting and I had won two college Allstars with St Pat's so it was a natural progression.
“I was very grateful to get in and share a dressing room with guys that I idolised. Joe was the manager, Kieran McGeeney was the captain and then the likes of Paul McGrane, Diarmuid Marsden, the McNultys, the McEntees, Stevie McDonnell, Oisin McConville, Ronan Clarke...
“You can list them all off. It was a great learning ground and the training was ultra-competitive. You were straight in, if you were good enough you were old enough and they respected you more for giving as good as you got.”
He made his League debut in a Division One clash with Kildare in 2006 and by 2008 was a starter in the Championship team. By then Kernan had stepped down and his replacement, Peter McDonnell, had guided Vernon and the Armagh U21s to the Ulster title and the brink of an All-Ireland final. He had also managed the emerging youngster at club level with Armagh Harps.
Charlie started the 2008 campaign at wing-half back and Armagh saw off Cavan, Down and Fermanagh, in a final replay, to clinch Armagh's eighth Ulster title in 10 years. If you'd predicted then that Armagh wouldn't make a final since, no-one would have believed you. But you'd have been right.
“As the years have gone by that title has progressively meant more to me,” says Charlie.
“At that time Armagh would have had aspirations of getting to All-Ireland finals so when we won that Ulster title I didn't realise the significance of it.
“There's no way standing in Clones that day that I thought there would be such a gap to Armagh's next one. I thought I would have won more but that's the lesson you learn in football. Some people play their whole career and never win one so you become more grateful as time passes.”
It was his misfortune that he arrived towards the end of a golden era. Yes, there were many memorable wins, League titles and of course an Armagh championship with the Harps, but regular disappointment too beginning with the game that followed that 2008 Ulster final success.
High-fives had been exchanged between supporters after the draw for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Armagh ‘only' had to get past Division Three runners-up Wexford to make the semi-finals, but the Model County men ripped up the script and won convincingly at Croke Park.
“We had played them in a challenge match earlier that year and we beat them off the pitch, there might have been 20 points in it,” Charlie recalls.
“That might have been in the back of some of the guys' heads. You see it in all sports - if you have to talk about not being complacent it means there's something there that you are trying to eke out but it's very hard to eliminate.
“You can tell yourself at the time: ‘I'm up for this, I'm ready for this' but there's probably a bit of you, in your subconscious somewhere, that lets the thing go a bit. That was very disappointing that day against Wexford because we were fully expecting to win that game.
“They were a decent side but it's on the list of ones that got away. There's any number of years when I expected us to do better than we did and that's definitely one of them.”
Despite that disappointment, Armagh regrouped for the 2009 Championship and a ‘friendly' against Dublin was part of their preparation for a showdown with a Tyrone side that included his All-Ireland-winning future brother-in-law Sean Cavanagh. But by the time the ball was thrown in for that game, Charlie was nursing a broken jaw.
“I was running onto what you might call a ‘hospital ball' and I got an elbow to the side of the face,” he explains.
Off the record, he tells me the name of his assailant.
“I thought he was supposed to be a good guy?” I reply.
“Well when you're eating your meals through a straw for six weeks and your jaw is wired up and you have damage to your facial nerves you see people in a different light!” answers Charlie.
“When you do nerve damage it takes years and years for it to heal and there are still elements of numbness. I had it cracked in two places and you could literally have pulled out a piece of my jaw, I was lucky I didn't lose a few teeth. I remember going into the changing room and looking at myself in the mirror and thinking: ‘That's not good'.”
He had plates and pins inserted to knit his wired-up jaw back together but, incredibly, he has was back on the field for a Qualifier against Monaghan six weeks' later. Some might say he was wired-up himself to return so quickly?
“I was just very determined to get back,” he says
“I had got myself into really good shape, I was playing fairly well and I was all geared up for playing Tyrone and missing it was a huge disappointment.
“After four or five weeks the physio tried to build me up with soft tackle pads to get back into the swing of things. One of the guys was holding the tackle pad and I ran up, did a bit of a sidestep, he slipped and buried me with his shoulder straight in the middle of my face.
“It was one of those moments when everybody just stopped and looked at each other. I thought I might have broken it again but it didn't move and the physio said: ‘That's probably the best thing that could have happened to you'. So it worked out alright in the end.”
Even with Charlie back, Armagh couldn't get past Monaghan and Paddy O'Rourke took over from McDonnell but couldn't rekindle success. After O'Rourke, Paul Grimley got close to bringing back the glory days – Armagh came within a kick of the ball of an All-Ireland semi-final – but couldn't quite manage it.
Grimley did leave a lasting mark though - he converted Vernon from midfielder to full-back.
“I would always consider myself a midfielder or centre half-back,” says Charlie.
“I preferred the freedom of midfield and having the ability to go and play football, get forward, make passes and whatever. Paul talked me into full-back nicely one day! I gave it a go and made the mistake of playing okay and got handed the jersey.
“When I look back and reflect I wonder if I'd have stayed in one position and been an Armagh midfielder for 10 or 12 years would I have progressed and been more acknowledged on an individual basis? I don't know but that wasn't what drove me.
“I had to do what I needed to do for the team and I'm happy enough to live with that. People who follow football will understand that.”
McGeeney succeeded Grimley five seasons ago but Armagh have been unable to recapture the magic ‘Geezer' was part of as a player in the late 1990s and into the Noughties.
Despite the comparatively barren stretch in the 11 years since Armagh's last Ulster title, Orchard county fans have never lost faith. Deep within their psyche is an unshakeable belief that Armagh can beat anyone on their day and, on good days and bad ones, Vernon remained a favourite with the supporters.
“Well, it's nice to hear that,” he says, with a hint of embarrassment.
“I suppose I'd like to be remembered as somebody who tried my best every time and there were plenty of days it didn't work but I'm grateful for the days that it did work and there were some brilliant days.
“I'm sure there were plenty of days the fans could have strung me up too! But that's all part of it, you have your ups and downs and I'm always very thankful for the support I was given.
“I remember going to League games way down the country and I was always amazed at the numbers of travelling supporters we brought regardless of how the team was doing.
“It was heart-warming. Plenty of times we went down without much of a hope – according to the bookies or media – but Armagh fans travelled in huge numbers and that's something that will live with me forever.”
Vernon was a starter when fit throughout 13 consecutive campaigns and was still very much involved last season. He played the last four Division Two games in midfield and started there alongside emerging Jarlath Og Burns in the Ulster Championship win against Down – Armagh's first provincial win in five seasons.
He was on the bench for the semi-final draw with Cavan but started the replay at full-back. However, changes were made after that defeat and a cameo appearance against Monaghan turned out to be his last hurrah in county colours. After the season came to an end in Mayo he weighed it all up and decided it was time to go.
“I had thought about it (retirement) this time last year,” he explains.
“I have two kids now, Charlie is three and Niall is one, so I have a busy home life and I have priorities and commitments elsewhere. I live in Magherafelt, so my journey from training and League games is increased as well.
“As you get older, you feel as if you're putting more into it to get less out of it.
“Last season was disappointing in terms of game-time but I can't have any complaints in the 13 years before that. As you come towards the end of your career you gradually play less but, like any other player on the bench, you're thinking: ‘Put me on, I can play'.
“For me when you get to that point, the sacrifice that you're putting in for what you're then getting out of it just don't add up. When you're going to a League game away down the country you're away two or three days, you get home late on a Sunday evening and maybe don't have a whole pile to show for it.
“There's a certain window in your life when that's ok but you get to a stage where it becomes less and less ok. I felt I was ready to go.”
He met McGeeney and explained his reasons. The Armagh boss understood and wished him the best and then he told whoever else needed to know, issued a statement, quit the WhatsApp group and began “the adjustment period” from county player to ‘former' county player.
“It's a confusing time,” he admits.
“You spend so much time on it that you have mixed emotions when it comes to an end.
“If you're a bit-part player and you're used to being a central player, it's not the same experience, it's not as fulfilling. As a young player coming through I saw older players on the panel and thought: ‘I never want to be him, I never want to be the guy that stays a year too long'. Maybe I did though? (laughs) I don't know, it's open for debate but I had a fairly good go at it and I'm ready for the next challenge.
“In the end it all happens quite quickly. You have the conversation with the managers, tell the players your intentions and tell family and friends and whatever. You notify who you need to notify and then… exit stage left.”
He leaves the stage after 14 years of total commitment to the jersey. Success was fleeting but, like the birthday boy he called with, Armagh fans will always have fond memories of Charlie and that's worth more than a few medals.