Tribute to Mark Stafford - by Jamie Megarry

Posted : 1st June 2021 at 08:25:32

As one supporter posted on social media over the weekend, if you search for the definition of ‘cult hero’ you’ll see Mark Stafford looking back at you. The big defender is held in the highest esteem by the Linfield faithful and after six great years, he heads to Glenavon with our very best wishes.

Mark could have initially joined Linfield in 2013 when David Jeffrey showed an interest. ‘Staff’ had captained Ballinamallard to a superb top six finish in their first season in the top flight but after coming through the ranks since he was a young boy he wanted to show admirable loyalty to the Mallards which is testament to the man. When Linfield came back in for Stafford in 2015, Warren Feeney was looking to add steel to his team and at the age of 28 the central defender felt it was the right time to take on the challenge of wearing the royal blue jersey.

When he signed for Linfield, his former Ballinamallard manager Whitey Anderson described Stafford as a man of immense quality and immense integrity. How right he was.

Stafford made his debut in a 5-0 win over Glebe Rangers in the League Cup on September 1, 2015, after picking up an injury in pre-season. He had to be patient in the following weeks because you could only name five substitutes on the bench and he was coming back from injury to compete for places with Mark Haughey, Sean Ward, Chris Hegarty, Jimmy Callacher and Danny Wallace. Two weeks later Linfield were well beaten at Seaview by Crusaders and after that Stafford got his chance with the Blues needing steel in the team. He nailed down a place in the starting XI and then a few weeks later David Healy took over as manager.

David seemed to like what he was seeing from Stafford and the defender was quickly turning into a big player and presence for the team. Staff scored the first of many goals for the club, rising high to head in a corner against Carrick Rangers on December 15, 2015 as he booked Linfield’s place in the County Antrim Shield final.

Although his first season at the club was a good one for him personally in the sense that he established himself as a first team regular, scoring 5 goals in 22 appearances, he will have been disappointed to have lost the County Antrim Shield final to Ballymena United, and to have lost the Irish Cup final to Glenavon, as well as being pipped to the title by Crusaders. But Mark was a winner and would soon help put it right.

The Linfield supporters were liking what they were seeing from Stafford in his first season. The passion he showed when he scored and when Linfield won, as well as his willingness to put his body on the line ensured that the blue men and women really took to him, and in his second season he cemented cult hero status when he took his game to the next level in a memorable season.

He started the season as he meant to go on. Linfield were unfortunate to be edged out of the Europa League by Cork City 2-1 on aggregate, but Staff offered hope on the night with a cracking headed goal.

Linfield were a bit inconsistent at the start of the 201/17 season and Stafford missed the first month through injury, but once he got back, things changed and Healy’s men started to hit form. It was a two-horse race that season between Linfield and Crusaders and come December time, with Crusaders seven points ahead at the top, Linfield needed a monumental goal from Mark Stafford. The Blues were drawing with Ballymena United in stoppage time at Windsor Park and three minutes and forty seconds into four added minutes Aaron Burns whipped a cross in for Mark Stafford to pounce with an iconic diving header which sent the Linfield support into raptures. An iconic moment in that wonderful season, and you only needed to look at his celebration to see what it meant to him. Linfield were still settling into the new Windsor Park at the time following the redevelopment and many would say it was the first special moment in the redeveloped stadium.

As we mentioned above about putting things right, Linfield won the County Antrim Shield this time around. Stafford had scored in the previous season’s Shield final defeat to Ballymena, and he scored again, this time against Crusaders. He put Linfield 2-0 up after eleven minutes at the Ballymena Showgrounds with his seventh of the season, poking it a Kirk Millar corner before going on to win 3-1 for his first trophy as a Linfield player.

Linfield took 43 points out of a possible 45 in the title run-in and overtook Crusaders in the penultimate game of the season. It meant David Healy’s men were going to Solitude knowing that a point against Cliftonville on the last day would be enough to bring the title back to Windsor for the first time in five years. Linfield came in 1-0 down at the break and it was a real test of character. However, two minutes into the second half Mark Stafford popped up with a powerful header on Chris Casement’s corner and Andy Waterworth scored a massive equaliser which set Linfield on their way to the title. Waterworth rightly grabbed the headlines with his title-clinching hat-trick that day but Stafford’s involvement can not be underestimated. For Stafford and many others, it was a first league title and achieved in extraordinary fashion.

Having lost the Irish Cup final to Glenavon the previous year, Linfield had a chance to right the wrongs. The Blues were taking on Coleraine in the final at Windsor Park with fans out in their thousands. There are not many defenders who get the better of Coleraine forward Eoin Bradley but crucially, Stafford did. Andy Waterworth would describe Stafford as the best last-ditch tackler about and the defender lived up to that reputation with an outstanding piece of defending. The Blues were 2-0 up, but if Coleraine had got one back it was game on. Stafford was faced with a 1v1 with Jamie McGonigle and he managed to get a superb tackle in, and before he could get to his feet he put another crunching tackle in. Stafford and the other boys at the back provided the platform against a good attack and Linfield won 3-0 to complete a treble.

The 2017-18 was a season to forget as Linfield finished fourth and didn’t win a trophy. Although Linfield bounced back from it, it had a more lasting impact on the unfortunate Stafford. The season had ended with a European play-off defeat to Glentoran and in stoppage time of that game, Staff was booked which meant he missed the opening day of the 2018-19 season through suspension. On the opening day of the 2018-19 season Linfield won 1-0 away to Glenavon with a solid defensive performance by Josh Robinson and Jimmy Callacher at the back. Those two formed a solid partnership at the back and unfortunately for Stafford, he struggled to get games because of that, through no fault of his own.

But that’s not to say by any stretch that Stafford didn’t still play his part in the League and League Cup winning season. He scored a crucial goal in October 2018 away to Dungannon Swifts. The Blues had been a goal down before equalising and then on 88 minutes Matthew Clarke clipped a cross in for Stafford to head it down into the far corner for a late winner in front of a delirious away support. He scored four goals in 16 appearances in the 2018-19 season.

There had been speculation that 2018-19 would be Stafford’s last season at the club but he signed a contract extension, stating that because he felt he didn’t play as much the previous season, he wanted to write another chapter in his Linfield career and didn’t he do just that! Even he probably didn’t envisage what was to come.

Stafford was at the heart of a heroic European journey. The shoe was on the other foot this time, as Josh Robinson was injured and Stafford got in from the off. He played in the first leg of a Champions League Qualifier against Rosenborg but Linfield were knocked out by a superior team. Better things were to come, starting with a 3-2 aggregate win over HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands. Stafford played in both legs and was returning to his best with minutes in his legs. In the Europa League third round Qualifier first leg, the big man was superb as Linfield beat Sutjeska of Montenegro 2-1 away, pulling off a vital goalline block. In the return leg he sent the Linfield supporters delirious once again, powering home a header from Kirk Millar’s corner on six minutes. The Blues ended up going through as 5-3 winners on aggregate.

Then, Linfield progressed to the play-off round for a shot at the Europa League group stages. Qarabag, a dominant wealthy club from Azerbaijan was the opposition. Linfield were such underdogs that the bookmakers slapped a price of 10-1 on them against a team of internationals who’d held Atletico Madrid twice the previous season. Qarabag went a goal up early on, but once again Mark Stafford gave us an iconic moment. Five minutes before the break, Andrew Mitchell whipped in a free-kick from deep and Stafford powered onto it and guided a header into the corner of the net. The goal shook the visitors and five minutes later Shayne Lavery put Linfield ahead. The atmosphere was through the roof and it was one of this club’s greatest ever nights as Shayne Lavery scored a third and Linfield won 3-2. With the goal Stafford scored, and the quality of defending at the back, you might say it was Stafford’s greatest night in a Linfield shirt.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be as Linfield lost the away leg 2-1 to go out on away goals in Baku. However, Stafford was absolutely immense yet again. One would wonder if Stafford thinks ‘what if?’, because late in the game he was barged over in the box as Chris Casement went to hurl a long throw-in into the box. The referee had his whistle in his mouth but because the ball hadn’t quite been thrown into play yet he couldn’t give the penalty.

On the pitch after the game, Mark said in an interview that he’d ‘left his heart and soul and everything else out on the pitch’ - and that epitomises the man. It is what he did everytime he pulled on the Linfield shirt and it’s why the Linfield supporters love him.

Stafford scored 5 goals in 25 appearances as Linfield won the league. January 2020 showed him how quickly things can change in football. He was part of the Linfield team that suffered a shock Cup exit at the hands of Queens at the fifth round stage. It was probably one of, if not the toughest moment he had in a Linfield shirt. Nine days later, Linfield played away to Cliftonville at Solitude in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Stafford was dropped on the night but a knock for Mark Haughey saw Stafford come on as a half-time substitute and ten minutes later he scored what proved to be the winner, converting from close range in front of the Linfield away support after a corner was flicked on.

Again, some wondered if we’d see Stafford in a Linfield shirt again after Covid halted the 2019-20 season early, but during lockdown he had a think and decided he was desperate to keep going as David Healy wanted to keep him. He was superb in the Champions League Qualifier away to Legia Warsaw who only won through a late winner, after Staff’s header was somehow kept out by a top save by the experienced Artur Boruc.

Due to an ongoing knee problem, the 33 year-old would have known that he wouldn’t play week in, week out this season given that he can’t play twice a week and Covid had led to a hectic fixture schedule. But he still had a big part to play this season and played in matches of massive magnitude. When he was coming in he wasn’t getting a run of games, so to perform at the level he has this season without being at his sharpest has been superb. He never let David Healy down when called upon and this was epitomised when Linfield played Cliftonville early in March. Linfield were leading 1-0 in the closing minutes and Cliftonville broke through, with one attacker squaring it across goal to another Cliftonville man who looked sure to tap into an empty net. Yet, somehow, Mark Stafford appeared from nowhere to put in a heroic goal-saving block which was worth two points alone. He made 16 appearances and scored one goal which arrived at a great time. In Linfield’s second post-split fixture, at home to Crusaders, he ghosted in at the back post to convert a deep corner to put the Blues ahead early on, and he later set up Shayne Lavery as Linfield recorded a big win.

It was also fitting that he would play, and play superbly well at that, on the night Linfield cliched the league title to ensure he was signing off as a League and Cup double winner. It was Stafford who met Kirk Millar’s corner, flicking it on for Mark Haughey to score the vital goal at the back post.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Mark will testify that he’s a great man and he has real character. A great story involving Staff came in 2017 when Linfield played Celtic in Champions League Qualifiers at Celtic Park. Celtic’s talisman at the time was French striker Moussa Dembele, who irked Staff. The big defender turned around and said, “here Moussa, you couldn’t hit a barn door!” Right enough, Staff did prevent the striker scoring over the two legs, but he’s since been bought by Lyon for $22 million!

His commitment to Linfield was extraordinary. He would never go on about it because he maintained that playing for Linfield was a pleasure, but it is worth remembering what the man sacrificed to represent our club. He was making the trip from his home in Irvinestown, Fermanagh three nights a week to train, and then a match on a Saturday. It’s a long road and worth remembering he has a family with two young kids at home, and was doing all this on top of a full-time job. His commitment on the pitch, too, was clear for all to see. When things weren’t going well and he was making those long trips, many would have packed it in, but Stafford’s commitment never waned.

The morning after playing Celtic away in the Champions League in front of 58,000 people, he was up an electric pole working at 7am.

He must have been a dream for David Healy to manage. A winner, dedicated, a big presence around the dressing room and what’s been clearer than ever with games being played behind closed doors is how supportive he is with his teammates. Even if he’s disappointed not to make the squad, he’s there and putting the team first by supporting his team mates.

Similarly, it was an absolute pleasure for our supporters to have a player like Stafford representing them. A man who would give blood, sweat and tears. The Billy Meikle award is awarded at the end of every season to a player who displays the characteristics of pride, passion, never say die hunger and will to succeed, and Stafford has won it a number of times, which speaks volumes.

Above all, though, an absolute gentleman who is an honest as the day is long and a great ambassador to the club. It’s been our privilege to have Mark at Linfield FC and we wish him and his family all the very best for the future.

Thanks for the memories, Staff!

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