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Irish League sides' European improvements show the quality we have in the Irish League, says Linfield's Mark Stafford

 

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Mark Stafford has hailed fitness levels in the Irish League

Mark Stafford has hailed fitness levels in the Irish League

�INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Mark Stafford has hailed fitness levels in the Irish League

Linfield defender Mark Stafford believes superior fitness levels are now a telling factor for Irish League clubs in Europe.

David Healy's Blues enhanced their pedigree by emerging unscathed from a Champions League preliminary round, only to be edged out 1-0 in a tense first qualifying round tie against crack Polish side Legia Warsaw.

But their European dream is still intact as they have dropped into the Europa League, and they host Maltese side Floriana in a second qualifying round clash at Windsor tomorrow.

After being pipped for a place in the group stages by Azerbaijan side Qarabag last season, who would bet against Healy's boys going one better this time?

Irish League clubs' stock on the European circuit has risen considerably in recent seasons and the Blues have the massive incentive of adding another wad of cash to their bank balance as they are guaranteed a home tie in the next round against Estonia's Flora Tallinn or Icelandic side KR Reykjavik.

Former Ballinamallard United man Stafford insists the impressive European form is down to a new belief adopted by Irish League clubs - and their superior fitness levels.

"All aspects of the game are improving in terms of our own league," he said. "We proved that in our Champions League qualifier against Tre Fiori and in the first round defeat by Legia Warsaw, who were not only a full-time side but had genuine European quality in both the Champions and Europa League.

"I also watched the Coleraine game against Maribor and I thought their fitness levels were a lot superior, again against a full-time side.

"(Maribor) can argue they hadn't played a competitive fixture since March, but Coleraine only had a few games in terms of Irish Cup involvement.

"Maribor were champions of their country, but you wouldn't have thought it. Coleraine deserved the result, no doubt. We played them last week in a friendly, which helped sharpen up both teams going into these important European ties."

With expectation levels peaking, Stafford insists it's something that comes in abundance once you pull on the blue shirt.

"Our performance in the Europa League has been well documented, so it brings that little bit of added pressure," he added.

"However, that happens once you walk over the white line in every game. It's only natural that expectation levels rise, but we'll be taking nothing for granted against Floriana. There are no easy games in Europe.

"The manager (David Healy) and Ross Oliver (his assistant) are very astute when it comes to the homework on these teams.

"But we are at home and we must make the most of that. I think Irish League clubs in general are a lot more professional in the way they approach European fixtures these days.

"There has been a massive transformation, highlighted by Coleraine's performance. Their game plan worked a treat and, when they started to get a foot on the ball, they grew in confidence.

"It demonstrated to me the standard in the Irish League is now that good. We are all playing against good teams on a weekly basis and we are more well prepared going into Europe.

"The standard of the league week in, week out is now much higher than it was years ago.

"I know it's a distant dream for an Irish League club to reach a European group stage, but if the standard keeps improving I can't see why an Irish League club can't qualify for the next phase."

Belfast Telegraph