Clarke walks away to deepen Down's woes
THE warm glow which settled over Down after winning last year's All-Ireland football semi-final and giving a good performance in the final has given way to the cold winds of reality as they battle to save their 2011 championship.
A disappointing performance against Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final last Saturday week has been followed by the departure of forward John Clarke, who has announcement his retirement -- for this season at least -- at the age of 28.
Citing a loss of appetite as the main reason for his departure at such a crucial time in the season, Clarke said his heart was no longer in inter-county football after the defeat by Armagh and there was no point continuing when he wasn't fully committed.
However, he didn't rule out a return at some future date.
He admitted that he was disappointed by the level of criticism and abuse levelled at players and, while he stressed that this didn't influence his decision to quit, he described as "cowardly" some of the comments made by "critics who sit behind computer screens and are on discussion boards."
Clarke, whose younger brother Martin won an All Star award last year, was replaced in the first half of the Armagh game. He started seven of Down's eight championship games last year, scoring a total of 1-6.
The departure of a front-line player just over two weeks before the start of the qualifiers is a major loss for manager James McCartan as he attempts to reignite a season which started out with Down being well-fancied to end their 17-year wait for Ulster and All-Ireland titles.
Despite losing to Armagh, there's clearly quite a volume of support for Down to regroup and make a major bid for All-Ireland glory as they remain sixth favourites (25/1) for the title behind Cork (9/4), Kerry (5/2), Dublin (7/2), Tyrone (9/1), Kildare (11/1).
Armagh and Derry, both of whom have reached the Ulster semi-finals, are each on 33/1 while Galway and Mayo are on 40/1.