Belfast Telegraph

League glory has me craving more success, says Stafford

 

By Alex Mills

Teak-tough defender Mark Stafford admits he joined Linfield to win trophies. Now he's sampled the sweet taste of success following the County Antrim Shield triumph and last week's title win, he'll not rest easy until the Tennent's Irish Cup is also secured.

Stafford, who joined the Blues from Ballinamallard United on June 1, 2015, has been rock steady in the meanest defence in the league.

It's no surprise he still winces with a hint of anger when memories of last season's final against Glenavon come flooding back.

The Blues were dismantled in their own back yard by Gary Hamilton's team and, in spite of last weekend's title-winning frolics at Solitude and Windsor Park, there is still a certain amount of hurt.

"The Irish Cup is still a touchy subject with a lot of the players in that dressing room because of what happened last year," admitted Stafford.

"I don't use those words lightly. Everyone was, and still is, hurting badly and that really helped spur us on this season. For some reason, we didn't turn up for the final last season.

"We've used that as fuel this season and we know we still have a job to do, in spite of all the title celebrations.

"Coleraine have also had a great season, but we'll be ready, make no mistake about it."

Stafford stresses that Linfield's first title success in five years will live long in his memory.

He said: "Days like that are the reason I joined Linfield. I spoke to Tommy Breslin (Cliftonville's temporary boss) after last week's game at Solitude. He waited in the tunnel for every Linfield player to shake their hand.

"I said to him I remember my first season at Ballinamallard United. We finished in the top half of the table and we watched Cliftonville win the title on the last game of the season. I thought to myself, 'I wouldn't mind sampling a bit of that'.

"I mentioned that to Tommy and he told me he remembered that day. He was delighted for me to win the league. That's the sort of man he is."

The big defender, however, believes it was the words of manager David Healy that helped spark the team to life.

"We were not good in the first half, but there was a strong wind," he added. "So we were not overly concerned we were 1-0 down at half-time because we knew we would have the advantage after the break, but the gaffer still had a bit of a pop at us.

"We turned in a superb second-half performance. I don't want to sound disrespectful to Cliftonville, but I thought we were the better side."

Stafford believes the Linfield fans will again be out in big numbers for the final - and they can be the team's 12th man.

"It was incredible that over 2,000 supporters turned up at Windsor just to see the team and the trophy last week," he added. "We had 800 up at Solitude and they helped bring us home.

"It showed what it meant to everyone at the club. They had a part to play in us bringing that trophy back - and it will be the same again on Saturday.

"Hopefully, we can repay them once more."

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