I owed Linfield after my part in humiliating loss to Queen's, says Stafford
Mark Stafford knew on the bus trip from Windsor Park to Solitude that Linfield meant business.
The Blues defender says he could feel 'positive vibes' on the journey across Belfast ahead of Monday's 2-1 victory over Cliftonville that sent the champions back to the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.
There was cold, hard focus amongst David Healy's players and a burning desire to bounce back from their Irish Cup humiliation against Queen's.
After the shock 2-1 defeat to the Championship side earlier this month, Linfield manager Healy described it as the lowest point of his career. At the weekend, captain Jamie Mulgrew did the same. Stafford (32) was with them every step of the way.
Honest as ever, the former Ballinamallard United ace revealed that he felt a great deal of responsibility for the defeat because he conceded the late penalty, converted by Jonah Mitchell, that saw the Blues fall to one of the worst losses in the club's history.
Stafford even admitted following the Queen's debacle he didn't know when he would play for the Blues again. As fate would have it, the Fermanagh native came off the bench at the break against Cliftonville for the injured Mark Haughey and netted the decisive strike after Andrew Mitchell, with a penalty, and Joe Gormley had swapped first-half goals.
"The defeat to Queen's was the lowest point of my career and it will stay with me until I finish playing," said Stafford.
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"It was a soft penalty, but it was still me who conceded it and I felt really bad. The criticism the team came in for after the Queen's defeat was intense and the manager was getting it from all angles, and I did feel a lot of responsibility.
"What I wanted to do was play again to try and make up for what happened, but, to be honest, I didn't think I would even be in the squad for the Cliftonville match.
"We trained hard all week and on Saturday the team was named and I wasn't in the starting line-up, which I accepted. I was on the bench but was wondering when I would get my chance to play once more.
"Unfortunately for Mark he got injured and I came on in the second half. I was so determined to do well. To score the winner was amazing.
"We were on top early in the second half and I was close to getting on the end of a few set-pieces, and then after Ethan Boyle flicked on Andy Mitchell's corner, thankfully I gambled at the back post and the ball ended up in the net.
"It was a fantastic feeling scoring the goal in front of our fans because we owed them after the Queen's loss.
"I felt a lot of responsibility for the Queen's defeat so I was pleased to get on the pitch to pay something back to the manager and the players as well."
Stafford, along with other experienced stars Jimmy Callacher, Mulgrew and Mitchell, stood tall in the face of late pressure from Cliftonville. He says that desire and determination had been there since the team met up earlier that day.
"The journey over to Solitude is a short one but you could tell on the team bus how much everyone was up for the game. There was a real positive vibe and we took that out onto the pitch," said Stafford. "After we lost to Queen's there were a lot of people laughing at our expense because it was such a bad result for us, and we knew we had to fight back.
"Going to Cliftonville was very tough but we dug in and battled hard to get the win. The defeat at Queen's and the reaction to it was a driving force for the team at Solitude and we will use it for the rest of the season as well.
"We have to keep going and keep fighting hard to try and win the title again, and I believe we are all ready for the battles ahead."
Just three points split the top five in the title race, with Linfield, Glentoran and Cliftonville on the same number of points, Crusaders one behind and Coleraine three adrift. Healy's team, though, have one or two matches in hand on their rivals.
Intriguingly, Stafford says he feels Linfield have been too easy to play against in recent weeks, pointing out that their gutsy performance in north Belfast can be a marker.
"I wouldn't say we have been soft but we have lacked a bit of edge, and we found that against Cliftonville," said the defender.
"We have to keep that side of our game at home to Dungannon on Saturday and going forward. Glentoran have momentum, which is big in the Irish League, Crusaders will come on strong and Cliftonville and Coleraine are in there too, so we have to keep winning."