Mark Stafford has his sights set on more silverware this season following Linfield’s double winning exploits of the last campaign.

The Blues came up on the rails with a strong finish to the season to pip Crusaders to the league crown and they went on to make it a double when they defeated Coleraine in the Irish Cup final.

For former Mallards captain Stafford though there is no time to dwell on those successes as the Blues look to retain the Gibson Cup, their title defence getting underway on Saturday against Carrick Rangers.

“We would feel that we have a very good squad and we want to emulate what we did last season in winning the league,” explained the Linfield centre half.

Indeed, manager David Healy has moved to strengthen his hand over the summer and has brought in some great quality into his squad to provide competition for places in all sectors, including in Stafford’s position of centre half.

“He has strengthened in all areas of the pitch. In defence he has brought in Josh Robinson who will give us more competition at centre half. That’s four centre halves now in myself, Jimmy Callacher, Mark Haughey and Josh all battling it out for two places.

“The manager has also brought in Andy Mitchell who can play in midfield or at the back while Jordan Stewart has also come in and he will provide more options in attack. Robbie Garrett has returned to the club and he is a quality player and will give us more options at midfield. We have a strong squad going into the season and the manager has a lot of options so you need to be on top of your game,” added Stafford.

Pre-season has gone well for Stafford and his teammates and included a memorable Champions League encounter against Glasgow Celtic.

“It was a brilliant experience to play against players of that level and I might never have the chance to play against players of that quality again. We had to work hard to try and keep the score as respectable as we could, but it was great for us to have tasted games like that,” he said.

And Stafford states that their pre-season programme has them primed for that opener against Carrick.

It’s back to the bread and butter of the league this week and we are ready to go.

“Pre-season has been tough, not only have we trained hard but we obviously had those Champions League games while we’ve also played the likes of Hearts and Sheffield United U23s. On top of that we had a cup game against Glentoran and then we played Coleraine last week so there has been a lot of good work put in and a lot of good games for us in getting ready for the league.”

The Blues will be expected to get off to a winning start when they face Carrick but Stafford stresses that they are expecting a difficult afternoon with the Blues, as champions, there to be shot down by all sides this season.

“People say it is a good first game to have but Carrick have absolutely nothing to lose, they have a new manager and new players and they are going to be a real handful.

“They will be a different team than they were last year, they will have a lot of confidence after a couple of good pre-season results so we are under no illusions, it is going to be a tough game and one we will have to be on top of our game for,” he commented.

Linfield are not the only team to have added quality to their squad and the defender believes that it is going to be a tight battle for league honours in the 2017/18 season.

“All the teams have improved their squads, “ he said.

“The Crues and Cliftonville have strengthened, Ballymena and Coleraine have strengthened so all the teams are going to be stronger and it is going to be a very tough league.

“I don’t think it is going to take as many points this year as it did last year to win the title as you would think teams are going to take a lot more points of each other so it will be tight.”

Stafford will come up against his old side when Linfield host Ballinamallard at Windsor Park at the end of September and he admits that it is still the first score line that he looks out for after a game.

And he is hoping that the Mallards can enjoy a good season.

“That’s the first result I look out for, the Ballinamallard result, because the club means a lot to me.

“They had a strong enough finish to the end of last season so they could obviously enjoy their last few games and hopefully they can get off to a good start themselves and get up the league a bit,” he concluded..

First things first though for Stafford and that will be to ensure that there is no slip ups when they get the defence of the Gibson Cup underway.