One’s abiding memory of Mark Stanfield is his penalty conversion in the drawn National Football League Division Two final between Louth and Donegal in 2006.
Stanfield scored one of three first-half goals as the Wee County threatened to run-away from the Tír Chonaill men at Breffni Park that afternoon.
However, a stirring second-half comeback from the North-Westerners threatened to derail Louth’s quest for a first honour in six-seasons, before Louth won the replay.
That medal, one of two such crowns Stanfield won during his decade in red, is one the Castlebellingham-native holds dear, Though it’s not cherished as much as the Intermediate Championship title he won with the O’Connell’s in 2012.
After years of trying, and ultimately failing, both achieved their goals of securing the Grove side a place in the county’s top tier.
As fate would have it, Stanfield was in possession upon referee David Loughran’s full-time whistle. He turned promptly to his manager, and close friend, Wayne McKeever to rejoice. “Yes, we have it,” he remembers saying.
“On a personal note, that win meant everything,” Stanfield told the Dundalk Democrat.
“I mean it’s fantastic to pull on your county jersey and I’ve won two National League medals but to win a championship with the club you grew up with was really special simply because, always around the club people would be saying ‘are we ever going to win a championship.’
“I’d never swap that championship medal in 2012 for anything. It was very special to win with the club and one of the happiest days of my football career.
“All we ever won as a club was a Junior Championship and that was back in the age of our parents. We had hit the bar so many times in semi-finals or quarter-finals and even finals – in ’06 the Malachi’s beat the O’Connell’s in the final.
“So, to finally, finally do it. I mean it was so special. And it only seems like last week. I was standing with Wayne (McKeever) at the semi-final and I said to him ‘it only seems like yesterday’.
“But it’s brilliant that we’re back in the final this year. The boys started the year slowly, but they have had a few players back from injuries and abroad and as the year has went on, they’re motoring really well,” he added.
Their momentum from the successful domestic campaign of 2012 carried into the following winter and beyond, something which culminated in the ‘Bellingham men spending the next four seasons competing for Joe Ward.
With this in mind, Stanfield is sure the current crop – among them quite a few championship winners from ’12 – are determined to rise the club once more.
“We had a great run in the Leinster Championship that time as well. We got beaten in the final by a crowd called Monasterevin on a damp pitch in Drogheda, but that run was amazing. It really gave everyone a taste of what club football was like in Leinster and I know the lads really want to get back to that.
“We went down and beat the Laois champions in the first round when nobody expected us to. They had a couple of county men on the team and a fella called Billy Sheehan from down the country, who done his time with Kerry.
“And then we got the Meath champions in the Grove and we said ‘this is the first time we have played a championship match at home, so let’s give it our all.’ It was another humdinger of a game and we beat them after extra-time, before falling just short in Drogheda.
“But getting up to senior football that year, it’s where you want to be in Louth. The best teams are up there and it’s a level playing field up there at the minute and I don’t think the O’Connell’s are very far away from that level, even at the moment.
“We were beaten in the semi-final in 2013 against Cooley. We were very, very disappointed after that game because we were confident we could get to a senior final that year with the momentum we had behind us, but we just never turned up that day.
“We hit the crossbar with Salem Rifaie and that would have put us in front by a point or two and then Cooley went down the field and I think they stuck it in the back of the net. But there was still only a kick of the ball between us and the boys are hoping they can get the club back up. I think they can,” Stanfield quipped.
The championship victory was the crowning glory on a highly satisfactory for Stanfield. Perhaps even more so considering he got to taste the success while playing alongside his younger brother, Dean.
It was a dream moment, and one that wasn’t always possible considering Stanfield spent four-years playing for Killeavy in Armagh where he reached a championship semi-final. A move back was annual speculation, however, along with the sway of his brother, one aforementioned clubman has the decisive effect.
“At the end of 2009, start of ’10, I just thought that life was moving on and that I’d like to give it another go with the O’Connell’s. I’m married and very happy in Killeavy, but I started to think about the O’Connell’s after playing a couple of years down there,” said the former Louth forward.
“I was talking to my brother, Dean, and during conversations, he’d often say that he’d love me to come back and play and I’d often say that I’d love to come back and play and one thing just led to another.
“Wayne (McKeever) would be a very, very close friend of mine. He’s around my age, but he quit a lot earlier and went into management so I was really thrilled for him and that was one of the main reasons why I went back to the O’Connell’s.
“When he took over as manager, there was no asking I was just coming back. I knew he would take no messing. He’s a really good coach and very underrated in Louth. He was the extra factor that got us across the line that year.
“Although we were determined to do it after the couple of years before. We got beaten in the semi-finals of 2010 and 2011 and in 2012 we played St. Joseph’s in the semi-final and we were never going to lose that game. We knew that was our chance and the hunger the lads had that day was unreal.
“It was probably one of the best games I ever played because we played collectively that day and we gave the Joes a right good hammering and obviously met the Clans in the final.”
History won’t repeat itself on Sunday afternoon in the sense that Mark won’t be playing nor will McKeever be along the line.
Though, said with as much expectation as hope, Stanfield believes the O’Connell’s exile from the top-grade won’t be quite as long as their previous absence.
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