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Stafford's savouring baby blues ahead of Euro crunch


Head of the house: Mark Stafford nods home against Sutjeska
Head of the house: Mark Stafford nods home against Sutjeska

By Graham Luney

The good times just keep coming for Linfield defender Mark Stafford.

Blues players are struggling to keep a lid on their excitement as they prepare to take a shot at the group stages of the Europa League but, amid that sense of anticipation, the big man has just celebrated becoming a father again as well as his birthday.

The former Ballinamallard United ace turned 32 yesterday and he was given a special early birthday gift when his wife Kylie gave birth to Lyla on Saturday.

Lyla was born at The South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, delighting the couple and their eldest daughter Ellie (3).

Weighing 9lbs 9oz, the new arrival is making sure Mark has his hands full before he gets to grips with Qarabag in the Europa League play-offs.

It's an exciting time in the Stafford household and now the man who has made 122 appearances for the Blues is ready to have a rattle at making the group stages.

With the first leg of the play-off against the Azerbaijani champions at Windsor Park tomorrow night, Linfield and their fans are daring to dream of group stage action against premier European opponents, netting the club around £4m.

David Healy's side have already earned just under £1.3m from their continental exploits so far but an historic victory in this tie will hand the club an embarrassment of riches.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that Linfield are flying the Irish League flag with pride, and their performances will help bolster our nation's Uefa co-efficient at a time when we have temporarily said goodbye to one European slot.

Victories over HB Torshavn and Montenegrin champions Sutjeska saw the Windsor Park men celebrate back to back European victories for the first time since Aris (Luxembourg) and Valerenga (Norway) were swept aside in the old European Cup in 1966.

An Irish League club has never progressed to the Europa League group stages before so that means the hand of history is resting on the Blues' shoulders.

Qarabag will start the tie as firm favourites to progress but Linfield are chasing the dream with belief and hunger.

Stafford, who joined the Blues in the summer of 2015, got the ball rolling in last week's second leg against Sutjeska when he rose to meet a Kirk Millar corner, and further goals from Shayne Lavery and Matthew Clarke secured a 5-3 aggregate win.

With the new baby and birthday celebrations in full flow, the centre-back is targeting a very special hat-trick.

"It's been an eventful and very enjoyable few days for me and the family," said Stafford. "Everyone is doing great and we are thrilled to welcome Lyla into the family.

"Life is busy on and off the pitch for me but you've got to enjoy the good times. Our European run has created a nice bit of history for the club and, while we have a very difficult test ahead of us, I'm confident the boys will give it everything they have.

"We have very good players at the football club and they have proved that in Europe. Hopefully we have more big performances left in us."

Linfield have plans to go full-time in the coming seasons and that goal could be achieved sooner than expected if the club march into the group stages.

Stafford applauds the club for going down the full-time route as he believes the extra bit of training and professionalism could see the Blues shine even brighter on the domestic and European stage.

"Full-time has to be the way forward," he adds. "I think Irish League football needs that. The players are there and when we play teams from Scotland who beat us 3-0 you are thinking what's the difference? What do they have that we don't when the talent in our changing room is every bit as good as theirs?

"They are physically fitter and stronger than us and that gives them the edge. If some of our players were training full-time for a period of years, they would definitely be of that standard.

"The Irish League has to go that way, they have to find the money and ways to make it work. The players have the potential but maybe the infrastructure needs worked on.

"If we want to make further inroads in Europe we have got to embrace full-time football."

Stafford missed Linfield's defeat at home to Coleraine on Saturday but, while that was an early bump on the road for the champions, they remain the team to beat this season.

"You have to keep improving," he added. "We didn't really do that after we won the league the last time. Just because you are champions you can't just say we are going to walk it again. You must keep improving."

Meanwhile, Linfield's televised Premiership clash with Larne on Monday, September 2 has been postponed due to the Blues having three players on international duty.

Glentoran's home game with Institute - previously scheduled for August 31 - will now assume the Sky Sports broadcast slot on September 2.

• Winger David Scullion has left Larne and joined Annagh United.

Linfield vs Qarabag

Europa League Play-Off First Leg

Windsor Park, Tomorrow, 7.45pm

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