Painful end to Dundalk's European odyssey
Maccabi Tel Aviv 2 Dundalk 1
In the end, the fairytale ran out of chapters.
AZ Alkmaar's win in Holland removed the suspense from this game and victory meant little to the supporters of Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The outcome meant something to Dundalk, though, in their desperation to drain one last magic moment from a year stacked with them. Despite being second best for long periods of this game, they finished on the offensive.
But Dave McMillan and Ciaran Kilduff were incapable of converting chances that they would have slotted away in the early phase of an extraordinary adventure. And that means Dundalk will be unseeded for the first hurdle of the 2017 Champions League campaign.
With key men Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle departing for greener pastures, it will be a challenge to lift morale and go again. But Stephen Kenny's side can look to their own exploits for inspiration.
They finished bottom of Group D with the four points they took from their opening two matches, yet that doesn't tell the full story of the group. On the eve of the match, McMillan said that exiting at this stage would feel like a failure because they found themselves in such a strong position.
But Kenny disagreed with the sentiment as he put the whole run in perspective and, in time, the lower moments will fade from memory.
By now, the platitudes are unoriginal - and the players filtering through Netanya Stadium en route to their bus to the airport were mostly too deflated to find the bright side - but the fact remains they have delivered the best ever European campaign from a League of Ireland side.
It's been a voyage with life-changing potential that has earned the club €7m and propelled Boyle and Horgan towards transfers that will make them wealthy men. Others that are used to a league of uncertain winters will collect bonuses that will pay for weddings and, in one case, a deposit for a house.
Every penny is deserved, seeing as they managed to fit a decade's worth of outstanding League of Ireland European performances into a six-month window. This was not one of them, however.
In keeping with the Europa League phase of the run, Dundalk were the architects of their own downfall.
The story of almost every goal they have conceded is attached with the description of a Dundalk howler.
"We have given away some soft goals, very soft," sighed Kenny.
His team actually started in a more assured fashion than in the loss to Alkmaar in Tallaght a fortnight ago, but they undid the good work by gifting the under-pressure locals an opener.
Brian Gartland has always been encouraged to take risks in possession and that is part of Dundalk's strength but his decision-making was dreadful as he spurned a and instead tried to round Tal Ben Chaim.
He failed and the loose ball fell to Haris Medunjanin who was felled by Gary Rogers. Ben Chaim converted confidently. Gartland was distraught and was replaced at half-time by Paddy Barrett.
To Dundalk's credit, they quickly levelled with a wonderful team move. Patrick McEleney cut in from the right and his crisp pass found Chris Shields who sent in a cross that was missed by Horgan but turned into his own net by covering Maccabi defender Eli Dasa.
Dundalk probed for a spell before disaster struck again. Shields was caught on the ball and Ben Chaim fed skipper Dor Miha whose weak left footer trickled through the fingers of Rogers and into the net.
"It went through Garts' legs but I still should have saved it," conceded the netminder.
That left Dundalk in real bother but news that AZ were in control filtered through onto the pitch and that was bad for both parties. There was a flurry of excitement in second half when bum info led the Israelis to believe that Zenit had levelled when AZ had actually stretched their lead.
At that point, Dundalk were hanging in there, with Rogers stopping from the rampant Ben Chaim before Miha produced a contender for the Christmas blooper reels by comically slicing wide of an open goal.
With Shields switched to right-back to cover for the injured, Dundalk were stretched and made tired mistakes. Kenny was reluctant to use being out of season as an excuse, but it's surely no coincidence that the poorest performances came in the past month.
At times, it was too easy for Maccabi yet they courageously summed the battery power for a final push. Kilduff's arrival as a second striker helped to turn the tide.
The last burst from Horgan in Dundalk colours could have yielded a leveller. He left Dasa for dead with a trademark change of pace and both Kenny and Kilduff felt that the Galwegian was too honest by staying on his feet when others might have gone to ground.
He still produced a cross that the sluggish McMillan laboured over and the moment had passed. At the death, Horgan then sent over a corner that Kilduff somehow headed off target with Maccabi all over the shop.
In addition to the Champions League ramifications, it would also have avoided a basement finish.
"It's not where we wanted to finish but that's just the way it is," said Kenny.
"It would have been harsh on Maccabi if we drew but we kept going and that's a very positive trait we have.
"The overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment. It's been a long run and something we'll hopefully gain positive experience from. Some of the players hadn't played that many European games at all before the start of this season."
Horgan will not be around for 2017, but he was reluctant to officially confirm as much. "I'm still weighing things up," he insisted.
"As a team we're very, very close to kicking on. It just goes to show everyone that Irish football isn't as bad as people have been saying it is. We were so close.
"If there is a couple of players to leave, I can't see how this team doesn't go from strength to strength anyway."
The baton will pass to his replacement as Kenny targets another crack at the dream which this group has made possible.
Keeping manager key to future success - Finn
Ronan Finn says that the secret to Dundalk launching another European run is keeping hold of their manager Stephen Kenny.
The Lilywhites' stunning year ended with a deflating loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv last night and they are set to lose Ireland call-ups Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan to cross-channel moves.
But Finn feels that keeping hold of Kenny is the key. The manager's profile has soared after winning three titles in the row and breaking down barriers in Europe. He was crowned Philips Sports Manager of the Year on Wednesday, and both Martin O'Neill and Michael O'Neill predicted that the Dubliner will soon have other offers.
Finn will go on holidays before negotiating a new contract with Kenny, but he feels that the manager's ability to identify talent and improve players can keep the show on the road.
"Hopefully the manager stays, he's imperative to the club," said Finn. "The future is bright at Dundalk. The manager has proven he's got the ability to sign a player and get the best out of them."
Dundalk will fill the void left by the departure of Boyle with the announcement today that they have completed a deal to sign St Patrick's Athletic defender Sean Hoare.
It's believed that Dundalk have agreed a compensation figure in the region of €15,000 to sign the 22-year-old. Hoare made his senior breakthrough with Pat's in 2013 and has been a regular over the past three years in addition to featuring in the Ireland U-21 squad. He had also attracted interest from Cork City and Shamrock Rovers but is expected to pen a two-year deal with Dundalk.
Boyle is on the way to Preston after four excellent years with the Louth club but he will not be eligible for inclusion in their plans until January. Horgan could also follow him there, with Preston prepared to offer substantial pay deals to see off competition from other clubs.
Replacing Horgan will be a challenge for Dundalk, and they will not be paying out a six-figure sum to sign Dylan Connolly from Bray.
PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness said earlier this week that the first six-figure transfer between two clubs could be only weeks away, but Dundalk are mystified by any reports which claim they are willing to do that. They have been told by Bray that Connolly is not for sale at any price.
Elsewhere, Derry City have confirmed that they will start the 2017 Premier Division season in Buncrana while their Brandywell home is renovated.