Written by: Johnny McNabb 09 Feb 2022
© Mervyn Smyth Mark Stafford

Mark Stafford has a CV most players would be envious of – but the big defender doesn’t want to stop there.

The 34-year-old made a return to Ballinamallard United in the January transfer window and hopes to help guide the Mallards back into the top flight.

Stafford’s track record in this objective came true in 2012 as he led the Fermanagh based side into the Danske Bank Premiership for the very first time.

That success was made even more special due to his long-term affiliation with the club.

“I started playing football at the age of six at the Mini Soccer Programme at Ballinamallard,” he reflected.

“I came up through the ranks at the club and played for the Reserves in the Fermanagh and Western under Whitey Anderson and we won the Irish Youth Cup at under-18 level.

“Whitey was then appointed as first-team manager and we earned promotion to the Premiership with a squad full of local lads who loved the club.

“We had a great squad with the likes of Davy Kee, Chris Curran, Ryan Campbell and Andy Crawford just to name a few.

“We had an amazing first season in the top flight but then we lost players to other teams which made it difficult.”

It is fair to say that Ballinamallard were the victims of their own success as players were snapped up by other clubs – including Stafford who eventually joined Linfield in 2015.

© Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

A six-year stint would see Stafford win four league titles, two Irish Cups, a League Cup and a County Antrim Shield.

“Linfield wanted to sign me in January 2013 when David Jeffrey was in charge but we just got promoted and I didn’t think it was the right time to leave,” he added.

“I wanted to help the Mallards get stabilised in the division and to be fair Davy understood my decision.

“Warren Feeney then came in at the start of the 2015/16 campaign and I decided to make the move.

“Looking back now I definitely didn’t expect to have the success that I did over the six years and I still find it hard to comprehend.

“However, when you have a changing room like I did at Linfield, then you always have a chance of success and I was lucky in that regard.

“I don’t think anything can prepare you going to Linfield as there is always constant pressure to do well.

“It is a brilliant place when everything is going well, but you are under strain when things aren’t going so good, but that the expectation of the club and that isn’t going away any time soon.”

Stafford’s stay at Windsor Park would come to a halt at the end of the last season and despite not being able to play full-time, the big defender knew his time was up regardless.

© Alan Weir/Pacemaker Press Stafford celebrates scoring for Glenavon

A switch to Glenavon would be forthcoming but Stafford acknowledged he found it difficult to force his way into Gary Hamilton’s plans.

“To be honest, I knew it was my time to go,” he continued.

“I am 34-years-old, I gave my best years to Linfield and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

“You often see players maybe staying at clubs for a year too long and I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I made peace with my decision to leave.

“I don’t like making excuses but I missed pre-season at Glenavon due to an operation and I had COVID twice, so I struggled to get going.

“To be fair, Glenavon were excellent in looking after me in terms of rehab and everything else, but I wasn’t playing due to the form of Calum Birney, Mark Haughey and Danny Wallace.

“I didn’t want to sit there and just collect my wages so I felt I needed to leave and get back on the pitch.”

© Mervyn Smyth

The race for promotion in the Lough41 Championship is set to go down to the wire as only eight points separates second-placed Loughgall and Ards in seventh.

However, the return of Premiership action to Ferney Park once again is certainly an image that whets Stafford’s appetite.

“You could finish top or sixth, that’s how tight and competitive the Championship is,” he stressed.

“Newry are going well at the top but we just have to focus on ourselves and try and get all three points against Ards this weekend.

“My first game back in the Championship was against Ballyclare Comrades and it was a difficult game and I ended up with a black eye, so that’s the beauty of it.

“It would be an unbelievable feat for the club and me personally if we can achieve promotion.

“Ferney Park is a Premiership ground with the quality of playing surface, the facilities and the club house and I do think that’s where we belong.

“However, we have no divine right to be there as we have to work hard to get back to that stage.

“I think we have strengthened well in January, as have other teams, so we will see where it takes us.”