Dundalk’s season has finally drawn to a close, an unsatisfactory ending in many ways. The most fitting conclusion would have been progression to the last-32, or even a result in Israel full stop.
But some things just don’t end as they’re supposed to. A journey which began at a rain-drenched RSC in Waterford in the winter of 2012 could well have drawn to a close in the promised lands themselves.
Have Dundalk reached the promised lands? or are there further, greener pastures still awaiting them?
If last night was to be the final hurrah, it certainly wasn’t the worst place to drop out but they did so in a tangibly regrettable way.
Self-inflicted wounds, avoidable mistakes. It has been the theme. Giuliano’s wonderful winner on matchnight three was the only stroke of genius which had Dundalk in awe, the other seven concessions were each more avoidable than the other.
Each mistake coming from players who have been ultra-consistent for most of their time with the Lilywhites. Brian Gartland against Zenit and last night against Maccabi was culpable, and unusually so.
Gary Rogers, a ‘keeper who takes a hell of a lot of unfair flak, in Alkmaar, in Netanya will rue his errors which have proved so costly. People have to note that Rogers has been in the Ireland squad this year and was a shoe-in for ‘keeper of the season only for a rough spell in September!
Gabriel Sava and Dane Massey are others who may look back with regret for the parts they played in the goals the Lilywhites conceded. That is what top-level football is though, mistakes are punished, it’s ruthless.
Without clinging onto the clichés of what a season and what a team, it’s incredible to think what the Dundalk team of 2016 has done for a town which has been suffering in recent years due to economic and industrial downturns.
The town of Dundalk and murky, gloomy clouds appeared symbiotic. The football club’s exploits on the pitch has lifted that pessimism. Stephen Kenny has shown the light. The old border town has come alive, it’s now the envy of Ireland.
The whole experience bears similarities to Ireland at Euro ’88 where despite the country being economically and socially on its knees, people were in hysteria mode.
They were caught up in the whole thing. Money or personal problems was no longer an issue. People just wanted to live their lives and enjoy the entire experience to the maximum, to say ‘I was there’.
The same with the dwellers of Dundalk. To say that we have pride in our local team would be a disservice, for this group of players, mostly Dubliners, are honorary Dundalk men. In our minds, there are statues of each and every one of them at the town square.
What they have done for this town is beyond words. It’s not something that you can do justice to with words. It’s not something that you can put a physical or monetary term on. It’s a type of magic. As Peter Fitzpatrick said recently in an interview: “Money wouldn’t buy it.”
Think about the fact that people in Netanya, in St. Petersburg, in bloody Belarus know the name of the capital town of the smallest county in one of Europe’s smallest countries on the edge of the continent. Put that into perspective.
The inner-city populous of St. Petersburg is comparable to that of the entire island of Ireland, and we, being Dundalk, stared them right between the eyes, twice.
League of Ireland fans can of course lay claim to what the team has done and enjoy our success because the likelihood of it all being done again, being realistic, is very slim. And even if it is repeated, or somehow bettered, it will hardly incorporate the drama of this adventure to the far-flung lands of Europe and the middle-east.
The point is that as much as general league of Ireland subscribers may be jovial at the Lilywhites’ success, it’s nothing like what the people of Dundalk feel. That’s raw pride and emotion. Not even the late Seamus Heeney could have encapsulated it all never mind a droning reminiscer such as myself.
To see the place decked out in checkered black and white flags and bunting. To see people of all ages, gender, shapes and sizes walk around the streets of the town fashioning the three Oriel Birds on to their right brest, next to their hearts. It’s incredible!
Chris Shields and Daryl Horgan have both recently spoke of being stopped so often in the town for selfies and autographs. Special pieces of memorabilia which host no financial value, but worth more than you could pay for in sentimentality.
The players were understandably downbeat following Thursday night (and yes this is not the time to mention how far the club has come, again), assumedly after such a prolonged season of living in each other’s space, effectively becoming brothers, they will want to get out of the media spotlight for a while and enjoy Christmas with their families.
The journey has come to an end for some of the players as well which made it all the more poignant. Some of the brothers are fleeing the flock.
Like so many of the Dundalk decedents had to flee and leave their families when the town was on its knees economically, they had to seek alternative lives in places far away always knowing that Dundalk was their eternal stomping ground.
Andy Boyle and Horgan are the big two ready for departure, but the lads should know that they are always welcome back to the nest.
For all of those who had to leave Dundalk over the past decades in search of work or for other reasons, this success is for them too. The team have put Dundalk on the map all across the globe. People now feel proud to claim their Dundalk heritage, it’s now part of people’s identity, of who we are.
Perhaps though it’s only something that we’ll all come to fully appreciate, if that’s possible to do so any further, in the years to come when family holidays or college funds are not being exercised in foreign places for Dundalk matches.
It’s hard to imagine feeling any prouder of where we come from. Although if this isn’t to be the pinnacle and 2017 can somehow top it I’ll happily eat my words.
But if this is to be it in terms of scaling the lofty heights of European group stage football and holding a monopoly on Irish domestic football, rest assured Stephen Kenny, players and Dundalk Football Club because you have given a weary old border town a new lease of life, and its people memories that we’ll never forget.