Underdogs Linfield can bite again in Europe, says Stafford
Linfield defender Mark Stafford says his side will wrestle with Qarabag tomorrow night knowing they are capable of causing a major European shock.
The Blues are just one tie away from the group stages of the Europa League and a £4m prize that has eluded Irish League clubs. David Healy's men have already celebrated back to back European victories for the first time since Aris of Luxembourg and Norwegian side Valerenga were conquered in the old European Cup in 1966 and Northern Ireland's record goalscorer will challenge his players to make more history.
Linfield's stunning European run has pocketed just under £1.3m so far but the players are focusing on the opportunity to secure group stages battles with glamorous rivals.
Azerbaijani champions Qarabag are a step up in class from HB Torshavn and Montenegrin kingpins Sutjeska but the Blues will show no fear and plenty of courage when the first leg kicks off at Windsor Park.
Centre-back Stafford opened the scoring in the 3-2 home win over Sutjeska, sealing a 5-3 aggregate success, and he's now confident the players can rise to the big occasion again.
"We will go into this test with the same attitude we had in the last tie against Sutjeska," said the former Ballinamallard United ace. "We were underdogs in that game as well. Although this team will be a step up in class, we will go into it focusing on ourselves and our own performance. We will train hard, be ready and give it a good shot.
"We will go into it with a plan and confidence. We will have a real good rattle at them and see where it takes us."
Stafford added: “The potential success is in the back of your mind but this is two games of football against a very good side.”
It’s clear now that Linfield’s pre-season trip to Marbella was effective preparation for their European battles.
A behind-closed-doors friendly against Dinamo Bucharest was part of an adventure that sharpened the players’ fitness levels.
At a time when the Irish League’s Uefa co-efficient has cost them a European place, the Blues, along with Ballymena United, Crusaders and Cliftonville set about turning the tide.
Every club tasted victory, but Linfield’s march to the Europa League play-offs is an extraordinary achievement.
Group stage action in the Europa League has the potential to lift the club to a standard it has never reached before.
Linfield chiefs are also determined to phase in a full-time culture and Stafford likes the direction the club is travelling in.
“The European run has been brilliant for the confidence within the group,” added Stafford, who turned 32 yesterday.
“The football club went the extra mile for us in the summer by taking us away to Marbella in the summer to train. We felt fit coming home playing the competitive games in Europe and in the friendlies.
“I genuinely felt a difference walking out onto the pitch in Montenegro. The heat wasn’t hitting the back of your throat like it might if you haven’t experienced it for a while.
“We worked really hard in pre-season and knew we could cover large distances in heat and high intensity running in humid conditions. I think that really helped when the going got tough with 15 minutes to go. You stay mentally strong in the later stages of games and we got a positive result in Montenegro to give us a good chance of winning the tie.”
This is a huge season for Stafford as he aims to stay fit and play a big role for the champions.
“I don’t know what my fitness is going to be like this season,” he added. “I spoke to the manager before I signed my new contract and we agreed to look at how the campaign is going for me at Christmas. The new signings have freshened up the squad but other sides are stronger.
“It’s going to be a tough league. We say that every year but the challenge is getting stronger as teams strengthen.
“I just don’t see teams pulling away from the pack. I think the gap in quality has narrowed as clubs get more competitive.
“Since I got promoted at Ballinamallard I have seen the league’s standards going up and up and the football is better to watch too.
“We’ll do our best to defend the title but the chance to make the group stages of the Europa League doesn’t come round often and we will give it our best shot.”