Mark Stafford produced a man of the match performance as Linfield moved within touching distance of the league title with victory over Crusaders at Windsor Park on Tuesday night.

The big defender scored the opener for the Blues and set up another to leave David Healy’s side one win away from guaranteeing a third successive Gibson Cup. Linfield now sit eight points clear of second placed Coleraine with three games to go while they also have a superior goal difference to the Bannsiders.

This will be Stafford’s last season at the Blues with the former Mallards captain set for pastures new next season and he says that he is determined to finish up as a champion.

“That was the plan all along, I want to leave at the top and I want to leave as a champion and hopefully we are in a really strong position to achieve that; that was the aim at the start of the season and that’s the aim now with a couple of weeks to go,” he said.

The centre half had not played since March 19 but Healy recalled him for Saturday’s game against Glentoran.

“I had picked up fluid on my knee which kept me out a week and I wasn’t picked the rest of the weeks as the team was on a winning run. But the manager gave me a chance to play against the Glens and we had a really good result there to keep a clean-sheet and come away with a point,” he said.

Stafford has been unable to play two games in a week for over a year due to an ongoing knee problem but when asked to play again against Crusaders three days later he had no hesitation.

“I haven’t played two games in a week in over a year I would say but the manager rang me on Saturday night after the Glentoran game and asked me to play and I was never going to say no. I’m glad I played and I’m glad it went well for us.

“It was massive game for us because if we didn’t win and Coleraine beat Glentoran it would have been down to three points or if Glentoran had won and we lost it would have been down to four points with three to play, so it was a big win.”

Indeed, the win was made all the sweeter for Stafford as he grabbed his first goal of the season.

“I had a feeling that a goal was coming and I just stuck at it. I had big Jordan Owens for company on Tuesday night so it wasn’t simple but I managed to get away from him in the first set piece of the game and I got the goal, but I didn’t get close to too much after that!”

Stafford knows that the win was a massive step towards the title but he stresses that there is work to do yet.

“We know that we are in a very strong position now but there is still work to be done and we want to finish the job. We have Dungannon in the Irish Cup this Saturday and if we progress we are out in the cup again on Tuesday night before we meet Larne in the league on the Saturday. There is a lot of big games to come.”

With a lot of changes to come at Linfield due to the club going full time, Stafford acknowledges that as a group they are keen to finish the season strongly.

“There is going to be a lot of changes at Linfield next season, both with regards going full time and the playing personnel. It is maybe the last time that this particular group will be challenging for stuff together and we all want to do our jobs the very best we can to the end,” he said.