While the final scoreline wasn’t the one dreamed about, there was no denying the sense of pride about seeing Dundalk FC line-up at the Emirates on Thursday night.
The journey of recent years has been spoken about countless times by now but it is still incredible to think that just a day shy of eight years earlier the club were going into a relegation play-off with Waterford as underdogs having briefly flirted with not even seeing that season out.
Whatever the future holds, the story from then until now will surely go down as one of Irish football’s best.
The European experience for this year is far from over, of course, but the big question now is: Where to from here?
On the surface Dundalk might be flying high in the Europa League group stages but make no mistake about it, this is a club very much at a crossroads.
While the introduction of the Europa Conference League from next season will make trips to venues such as the Emirates more unlikely than ever going forward, the reality is that the path taken over the next few weeks could very well determine whether there are more European glamour nights in the years to come or, in a worst case scenario, if a fall from grace similar to that of Cork City is the next chapter in the tale.
That might seem an extreme prediction but the joy of the Europa League can only paper over the cracks for so long.
The problems, some of which emerged around Vinny Perth’s sacking, haven’t gone away and a little over five weeks before the 2020 football season is due to wrap up at home to Arsenal in the Aviva Stadium, the futures of up to 18 players remains very much up in the air.
By my reckoning, Gary Rogers, Aaron McCarey, Sean Gannon, Cameron Dummigan, Brian Gartland, Sean Hoare, Jordan Flores, Michael Duffy, John Mountney, Dane Massey, Sean Murray, Nathan Oduwa, Daniel Kelly, David McMillan, Lido Lotefa, Josh Gatt and the on loan duo of Georgie Kelly and Taner Dogan are all out of contract next month.
Excluding players in the academy that leaves just 10 under contract for 2021: Andy Boyle, Stefan Colovic, Daniel Cleary, Chris Shields, Patrick Hoban, Patrick McEleney, Greg Sloggett, Darragh Leahy, Will Patching and Jimmy Corcoran.
That isn’t even enough to field a side for next year while question marks remain over who will be in charge.
Chairman Bill Hulsizer went on record after Dundalk’s Europa League group stage qualification that interim head coach Filippo Giovagnoli would be offered the job full-time. While there are no indications to suggest that will not happen, the failure of a deal to be signed as yet leaves a lot up in the air.
While Giovagnoli – or anyone else – is unlikely to keep all 18 out of contract, it’s worrying that little or no progress has been made on ANY deals.
At the same time St Patrick’s Athletic are understood to be eyeing up Sean Gannon and Daniel Kelly, Shamrock Rovers like the look of Sean Hoare, Glentoran are monitoring Aaron McCarey and Derry dream about bring Michael Duffy home, with League One sides also understood to be keen on the winger.
Of course, it’s the club’s prerogative to look elsewhere for players but who exactly is overseeing that?
Certainly the recruitment regime in the recent past has left a lot to be desired. Obvious areas where strengthening was needed have gone ignored while the profile of signings don’t match up with the club’s stated goals.
If the aim is to be in the group stages of Europe every year, that’s fine, but you can’t do that by signing an abundance of players from abroad. A restriction on the number of non-home grown players meant that Patching and Gatt had to be omitted from Dundalk’s current Europa League squad while there would undoubtedly have been another high profile omission were it not for Massey’s injury.
While neither Patching or Gatt have had the impact they would have liked at Oriel as yet, no signing is made on the basis it won’t work out so why sign them if there’s a chance they, or others, can’t play in Europe?
If Giovagnoli is to get the job, through no fault of his own, the big question is does he know enough about the league here or the players in it to strengthen Dundalk from within the league.
And given he has been mainly in America in recent years, has he even a knowledge of the English and European markets to identify new signings?
Since arriving, the Italian has said he has no direct involvement in re-signings. That may change but either way something has got to give this winter at Oriel Park.
The club cannot continue to operate in a situation where directions from American conflict with what is happening here or vice versa. The current staff at Oriel Park need to be either trusted to steer the ship or a Director of Football or CEO appointed to oversee things.
One thing is for sure, the current rudderless approach with bickering in the background cannot continue.
As already stated, it was fantastic to see Dundalk line out at the Emirates but now clarity is needed to ensure the next clash with Arsenal on December 10th is not part of the end of an era and rather just the starting point in attempting to wrestle back the title as Stephen Kenny did from Cork in 2018.