The streets around Oriel Park were eerily quiet last night. Football without fans was always going to be surreal in a town that feeds off the energy of the Friday routine.
But the silence hanging over the return was borne from a week that has delivered a punch to the stomach of Dundalk's players, management, staff and supporters.
The letter H on the back of their T-shirts in the warm-up said everything.
Last Sunday's urgent appeal for the public's help tracing the whereabouts of Harry Taaffe was the start of a nightmare unfolding. The search was stood down when a body was found in Armagh.
A one-line report referencing the passing of the club's groundsman and videographer doesn't do him justice.
Manager Vinny Perth called him his right-hand man. To players, he was a mentor and problem-solver. And to the staff, he was the heartbeat of the club, a man who wore many hats across his long association through good days and bad. Skipper Brian Gartland says it would be correct to describe it as a death in the dressing-room.
"It's not someone in the background, it's a member of our squad, of our team," said Gartland. "It's someone that has been there from the start and we wouldn't be where we are without him. That's not building it up. It's the truth."
The St Patrick's Athletic side who provided last night's opposition knew the significance. Manager Stephen O'Donnell and midfielder Robbie Benson, two key components of the club's trophy-laden era, were amongst the many people who travelled to the Taaffe home to pay their respects ahead of Thursday's funeral. "A giant of a man," said O'Donnell, putting it succinctly.
Their old boss Stephen Kenny was amongst the first to visit, speaking warmly about a character that he always used to mention in dispatches during his life-changing spell in charge.
"In my time here, he put a lot of hours in for the good of the club," Kenny told the Irish Independent. "The practical help he offered, you couldn't put a value on it, you couldn't monetise it."
It would be impossible to trace the story of Kenny's rise to the top job in the country without acknowledging the volunteer help he received to make the best of limited resources and raise the bar before their European breakthrough.
"Irish football is on the crest of a wave now with a new team coming through," says Perth, Kenny's assistant before taking the Dundalk job after his exit. "And if Stephen getting that job was built on 2015 and 2016 and 2018 then Harry genuinely played a part in him getting there."
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Kenny didn't need directions to the Taaffe residence when the news broke. It was a route that was once central to his working life.
After every Oriel Park match-night, the Dubliner would finish his press commitments and any lingering business at the ground and then make his way to Harry's abode in nearby O'Hanlon Park sometime around midnight where the videographer had his recording of the 90 minutes prepped and ready for consumption.
"It was a council house with two of the biggest TV screens you'd ever see," laughs Kenny, who seldom left before 3am. "We had gone from where they give you DVDs after games to a higher level of technology and Harry was abreast of that."
If there was any pausing or clipping required, Harry was the intermediary. In the manager's mind, the swift viewing allowed him to focus thoughts on what unfolded. The Taaffes were used to the presence of Kenny and assorted staff members about the house. There were times when Harry went up to bed and told the guests to let themselves out and lock up after.
"In 2016, in particular, he was right in the middle of everything," says Perth. "It wasn't unusual for me or Stephen to fall asleep on the sofa. He'd turn off the telly and throw a blanket over you."
The next morning, Harry would likely be back at Oriel first. He had progressed from fan to fundraiser to security guard and then to head groundsman with the videography thrown in. It might be easier to list the roles he didn't fulfil.
When Kenny arrived, Dundalk were down on their luck and didn't have a grass pitch to train on. The artificial pitch wasn't going to function as preparation for away day surfaces. Local schoolboy clubs needed facilities for their own reasons, and Dundalk had nowhere to go and no cash to throw at the problem.
An old grass pitch behind Oriel Park, which was owned by a local school and viewed as a 'cabbage patch' by O'Donnell, became Harry's field of dreams.
"The club didn't own any equipment," explains Kenny. "But Harry had his own tools. I think he used to do stuff in Bellew Park (a local pitch), and he turned it into a really exceptional training surface for us.
"He made that out of nothing really, it was sheer graft putting a lot of man hours in. He knew I had high standards and would cut it and water it and make sure it was all good. He was doing this every day and, initially, this was all without pay. That was hard work, but he loved it. He did an incredible amount of stuff really, too much at times."
Gartland remembers hearing that Harry needed a part for his tractor and spotted it was available in Cork via DoneDeal. He drove down himself and paid for it out of his own pocket.
Clubs in all codes would relate to tales of that volunteer who goes above and beyond for the cause and Harry was Dundalk's version, yet there were layers to his story that would skew any comparisons. He was a product of the town and its history and had crammed a lot of living into 58 years.
Rough and ready is a phrase that cropped up across various calls. There was a gruff side that could be intimidating to a stranger, yet his ability to lighten the mood in an instant endeared him to counterparts he met in gantries around the country. European visitors to Oriel quickly learned about the idiosyncrasies.
"His character was suited to being involved with the League of Ireland," chuckles Chris Shields, who admits that he'd known Harry for a while before learning about the extent of his community involvement away from Oriel that occasionally made local headlines.
There was a central role in water charges protests, and sleep-outs in aid of the homeless. In 2014, he had to go to court to challenge a curfew that was preventing him from travelling to Dundalk's away games. That was traced to a skirmish arising from vigilante activity, with a court report chronicling his involvement in a Facebook page that offered support to citizens who felt vulnerable in their home.
A police inspector said this group wore fluorescent jackets and carried walkie-talkies. By all accounts, his own property was CCTV'd to the max.
There were people around the club who didn't quite know what to make of this, and a few shied away from entering discussions around that time. Perth did engage in spirited debates.
"Part of it was for entertainment purposes," he says. "He called me a West Brit more than once. If I said black, he'd say white.
"He was an opinionated man, and I've called him a Robin Hood character because there's no doubt that he fought for people who needed the support.
"He was clever too. He'd always say that he couldn't read or write but he was more intelligent than people with letters after their names."
Gartland breaks into laughter as he recalls listening to Harry attempting to discourage players from paying VRT on cars brought across the border.
"He'd go to court against the state, no bother," he says. "If he thought something was right, he'd fight for it."
"He was a one-off character," said Kenny. "And he loved his town, he was Dundalk through and through. He was active and whether it was through protests or whatever, he had strong views. He was very committed. But more than anything, he had a very big heart."
Andy Connolly, the co-owner when Kenny was appointed, spoke this week of how the jack of all trades pulled in all of his contacts when the club was engaged in bag-packing and bucket collections to stay afloat in 2012.
A live turkey was produced for a fundraising raffle. The back story was never told. Harry was in charge of a stall in Jonesboro, yards from the border with Armagh, a haven for wheeler dealers and a place where strange requests could be granted.
Another club official tells a story of several copies of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' being sourced for the connections of a sponsor. The copyrighting was a grey area too. Players had him on speed dial.
Ruaidhrí Higgins, the Dundalk title-winning player-turned coach who is now part of Kenny's Ireland staff, remembers the maiden encounter.
On the new signing's first night in Dundalk in 2014, his northern reg car was broken into. Passport gone. There was even an aborted attempt to burn it.
Higgins asked his house-mate John Mountney, then in his third season with the club, what he should do. "Ring Harry," was the response.
"So Harry came straight around to the house and asked me what was missing. I told him it was the passport I was worried about.
"He said, 'Right, give me 24 hours and I'll see what I can do.' Around an hour and a half later he rang me back and told me he'd got my passport."
Higgins is sure that any of the players who lived in the locality would have stories in a similar bracket. There's an extensive back catalogue that were discussed in this week's reflections and they wouldn't all be printable.
"At every club, you need someone you can contact if you need something and at Dundalk that was Harry," explains Higgins. "He was like an unofficial player liaison officer. If you needed something, you rang Harry. If he didn't know how to fix the problem, he could ring someone who could. He was a very protective person by his nature and treated anyone at the club like they were his own."
His function as a bridge between the players and management meant he was trusted by both sides, even if that required applying discretion for the greater good. If any of the squad got into any kind of trouble, Harry was a confidant, a father figure to young men who occasionally lost their way.
There are tales of individuals being dragged out of the wrong houses for their own good. One player got lost on a rare night out in Dundalk and ended up knocking on Harry's door at 3am because they had nowhere else to go. They were taken in and put to bed.
"I've been on both sides of it," says Higgins. "The playing side and the management team. I know incidents happened on nights out over the years and if a player went to Harry about it, it never, ever, ever came back to the staff. He had a real loyalty that was unparalleled; you could feel confident to tell him anything and it wouldn't go anywhere. And I also saw him stand up for the players with Stephen and Vinny."
Both Gartland and Chris Shields brought up the latter point. "He had no fear of Stephen, which was standout," says Shields.
On the European trips, he was an ice-breaker if there was tension, sitting in the back row of the charter flights inspecting all that was going on ahead of him. Shields enjoyed his roguish streak and they often gravitated towards each other. Harry had given up drinking years previously but was an avid smoker prior to a health scare. Shields would be buying cigarettes for his father, another committed smoker.
Coming back from a game in Belarus, they both noted the outrageous duty free value.
"We got chatting about it," says the midfielder. "Harry just told me to buy what you want and leave it with me. I must have bought 1,000 smokes, and gave him my rucksack. He just said to meet me at the baggage claim on the other side. Every passenger on the plane must have ended up taking some.
"Harry was a tough man, made of steel, but a real softie too. He cared for a lot of us. We always had great fun on the European trips; he didn't give a f**k what anyone thought."
Dundalk's first and only post-match European night out in this spell at the top of the Irish tree came in Luxembourg in 2014 when there was no charter home and a gap in the fixture list permitted flexibility. Kenny allowed the players to go out for a few hours once Harry accompanied them as the head of security.
The evening ended somewhat chaotically, with players getting chased down the street and in and out of taxis as their minder battled in vain to get them all back to base before the curfew. The following morning he was summoned to a room where a sheepish player was standing next to the hotel manager, engaged in a debate around whether accidental bed wetting had occurred overnight.
Harry ran his finger down the side of the mattress, placed it in his mouth pretending to taste it and incredulously told the hotelier that it was only water. The culprit knew the full story but Harry's ability to take one for the team was what made him such a beloved figure. He was hamming it up by dry retching on the bus 20 minutes later.
"If you were on his side, he'd do absolutely anything for you," says Gartland. "He was like Batman, arriving in to solve something."
Across the week, there has been tears and laughter, and tears of laughter too. The stream of tributes from around the country have illustrated the power of the personality, but all have gone out of their way to stress that the subject of the affection was a family man first and foremost, even if the club became an extension of that.
Fittingly, Dundalk found room in the restricted attendance of 200 to accommodate his family for last night's game.
"He idolised his family," stressed Higgins. "He was obsessed with them, constantly talking about them. Everywhere he went, there seemed to be somebody from the family with him, one of his kids or his grandkids"
His wife, Maria, was a familiar face to all of the coaches and players, past and present.
"The daughters were involved with the club," said Kenny. "Orla would have been running the merchandise shop."
His son Shane has gradually been adopted into the wider backroom team, recording the home matches over the past year while Harry took the away games. The pair were inseparable.
"I don't think I've ever seen a father and son so close," said Gartland, his emotion apparent. "I swear to God. Harry was so good to Shane, and Shane was so good to Harry the last while. They were so close, the two of them."
Success has changed the working conditions around the club, with more hands on deck than the early days of Kenny's reign. It's a more professional operation now. Technology has become more advanced, with games accessible with the click of a button.
"Up until a year ago, any video we ever produced for the players would still have gone through his computer," asserts Perth.
Former owner Connolly - whose brother Martin remains as the club's general manager and delivered the funeral reflection - typed out a poignant post on social media where he explained that supporters may never grasp how pivotal Harry was in their ascension.
"I think we should tell people what we think of them and how we appreciate them more often. Some people can do that and some people just cannot. I am probably one of those who can't. But Harry, I thank you so much and appreciate all you have done for us. We would never have been able to get this far without your help."
Ex-chairman Mike Treacy, the initial Irish representative for US owners Peak6, responded to a request for comment with a lengthy message explaining that he'd never been so broken up over losing someone he'd known for such a short period of time.
"I'll fondly remember Harry MacGyvering through any simple problem we faced at the club," he said, detailing how he went out of his way to provide an upgraded live stream for the US backers.
"We told him he could go purchase a state-of-the-art router. But Harry somehow figured out a way to combine six 4G wireless routers together to create what was probably one of the most powerful wireless devices in Co Louth. I didn't ask any questions; you knew he'd find a way to get the job done. Everyone has a story like this about Harry. He always got the job done."
Shields says his passing is like coming back to Oriel to find a wall knocked down. A permanent presence has departed suddenly. It was known that he hadn't been doing especially well in the past year. Out of the same respect that he showed to others, any difficulties were kept in-house.
In Gartland's eyes, the fact that one of the hardest, toughest men you could meet was struggling with mental health should tackle any stereotypical views that people may have about the issue.
"It has rocked me," says the defender, who is already talking about what can be done to raise awareness and honour Harry's name. "I find it hard to talk about that part without welling up. But I could talk about Harry forever."
After the challenges of lockdown, the grief has punctured enthusiasm about the resumption of the season. For Perth, it was part of a double tragedy.
During the friendly with Longford 11 days ago, he was informed that something had happened to his brother-in-law David McArdle. He passed away at the age of 31.
That funeral was on Wednesday. Harry's was 24 hours later, with training rearranged to allow the group attend.
"It's been a weird, weird time," said the Dundalk boss, speaking late on Thursday about the roughest of preparations.
Gartland was walking off the training pitch on Tuesday when he heard the familiar sound of a tractor engine crank up. He glanced up immediately and spotted fellow stalwart Dane Massey doing the same. There was someone else behind the wheel.
"Massey just said to me, 'You know what I was thinking of there' and I knew exactly what he meant. We were expecting to see Harry."
The return of football was supposed to bring back a version of normality. But around Dundalk, they will need convincing that things will ever be the same again.