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Mark Stafford: It would be unfair for Linfield to be handed the title with others still in the mix

 

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Empty feeling: Mark Stafford doesn’t want to be handed the title

Empty feeling: Mark Stafford doesn’t want to be handed the title

�INPHO/Brian Little

Empty feeling: Mark Stafford doesn’t want to be handed the title

One of the disheartening aspects of the coronavirus pandemic for the Irish League community is the unfinished business of this season.

If the remaining games are not played, all we are left with are 'what ifs' and that agonising feeling of what might have been.

While the 2020 Irish Cup winners may never be known, would Linfield have held off Coleraine's spirited challenge and retained the league title?

With seven games remaining, the champions are four points ahead of Coleraine and 10 clear of Crusaders and Cliftonville.

In other words, all to play for and the Bannsiders were even dreaming of a treble after lifting the League Cup and progressing to the last-four of the Irish Cup.

Linfield, with the scent of Gibson Cup glory in their nostrils, were on the charge and their extraordinary European heroics last year now feel like a lifetime away.

The Covid-19 outbreak has kicked football into touch and no one knows when it will be safe to resume playing.

If it's decided that the season cannot be concluded, Northern Ireland Football League chiefs may opt to call Linfield league winners, without them being crowned champions.

And if that happened, never before in the history of the Irish League would a championship success be celebrated with so little enthusiasm.

Defender Mark Stafford, while still clinging to hope he can grasp a third Premiership winner's medal, says any awarding of the title at this stage will carry little meaning.

"We just want to finish the job and everyone else feels the same," said Stafford, who has made 142 appearances for the Blues.

"Everyone is where they are in the table on merit but it's still close at the top and bottom. You want to win league titles in the right manner and not be handed anything.

"Winning the league championship is a big deal and you'd like to win it in the proper way. It would be unfair on Coleraine for us to be handed anything. Hopefully, we will get the opportunity to play the games and win the league.

"It's just an extraordinary time and players will miss some big games.

"There's a bigger picture and that's the health of everyone in the country. The measures are in place for a very good reason and we all have relatives who might be vulnerable and we are trying to protect them.

"It's a hard time but we have to accept making this sacrifice."

It's been a long season for all the players and it would be a real shame if all the time, money and effort invested into the campaign brought no reward.

Although Uefa have given NIFL a deadline of May 25 to submit a plan for the restart of the season, hope is fading fast.

"Our season started in the middle of June and we went to Marbella for a training camp, then we were in Europe," added Stafford, who joined Linfield in 2015.

"To end up this way is hard to take because all that hard work put us in a good position with seven games to go.

"It's all been taken out of our hands now. Hopefully the fixtures can be played but when, I don't know.

"I'm optimistic in the sense I hope we can play again soon but I don't see it happening anytime soon. We must see how the pandemic works out. I think clubs would have to spend a lot of money to create safe environments for everyone, including players. At Linfield we have players from all over the country and 30 staff coming into the one environment.

"The medical staff would need to have the right protection and we have heard about shortages elsewhere.

"I don't know how football physios are going to get equipment when the NHS should be getting it first.

"Germany are trying to get going but the players have been taken away from their families.

"The repercussions of a player getting the virus aren't pleasant and we have been aware of that at Linfield."

Belfast Telegraph