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Mark Stafford: Linfield's latest title was just as sweet despite early end to season

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Mark Stafford will have the opportunity to add to his three league titles at Linfield.

Mark Stafford will have the opportunity to add to his three league titles at Linfield.

Mark Stafford will have the opportunity to add to his three league titles at Linfield.

Mark Stafford believes Linfield will be public enemy number one when the new Irish League season gets under way.

David Healy's boys were crowned Danske Bank Premiership Champions on Friday, following the judgement of independent data consultants whose expertise was utilised by the NI Football League in the aftermath of the action being halted by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is Stafford's third title win in a blue shirt and he was rewarded a few weeks earlier with a new contract when he thought his days at Windsor Park were coming to an end.

"I genuinely thought this would have been my last season at the club," said the 33-year-old. "I didn't really think the Board at the football club would have offered me a new contract.

"At Linfield, there is always someone else ready to come in to take your shirt.

"I was very pleased that the manager thought I could still do a job for him.

"During lockdown, I had a lot of time to think about things and, to be honest, I realised I wasn't ready to leave Linfield.

"I'm just thrilled to have been given the opportunity to wear the shirt for another year.

"It was my third title win - and it was just as sweet as the other two.

"When I joined Linfield from Ballinamallard United five years ago, I remember people saying it wasn't a good time to go there because they were not winning trophies.

"But, for me, that was the challenge. It was the perfect time to join them, to help the club get back to where it should be. Thankfully, I played a small part of that."

If this season's title race was a nail-biter for a long time, Stafford reckons the new campaign will be even more fiercely fought.

He added: "We now have a big act to follow. We have the European qualifier coming up, which will be difficult, but next season's Irish League campaign will be massively tough. The standard is rising all the time. Every club is going to be fighting like dogs to topple us.

"There is no doubt the Irish League is moving forward. Teams are now adopting a more professional, full-time approach. That's because clubs are now pushing the boundaries. They are doing things properly."

Although there controversy around the way the season finally ended, Stafford insisted it would have been a travesty if the Blues had missed out on the Gibson Cup.

"It's not the way we wanted to win the title. We all wanted to finish it on the pitch," he said. "We were in a good position when the lockdown was imposed, four points clear at the top. Perhaps our form was patchy at times, but we were really starting to play well when the League was brought to a halt - we were starting to get on a bit of a run.

"At that stage, I really did believe we would have gone on to get the job done. I'm just glad we got rewarded for all the hard work we put in."

Belfast Telegraph