Long goodbye for Dundalk stars as focus turns to future plans
They had reached the end of a journey which has strengthened the dressing-room bond.
And late on Thursday night, in the aftermath of defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Dundalk players knew that integral members of the group had played their last game for the club.
Captain Stephen O'Donnell said there was no discussion of that situation as they digested elimination. The emotions were kept in check. "We are too macho as young men for that," he laughed.
He didn't know then that a really long goodbye to the season was beckoning. Dundalk's trip home turned into a saga when they boarded the plane at Tel Aviv Airport and prepared to take off only to learn from the pilot that they had missed their slot for departure by five minutes.
After some confusion and false hope that a quicker solution could be found, they had to return to the terminal for an unwanted overnight stay - when accommodation was eventually sorted - which meant that Stephen Kenny's fatigued and frustrated group only made it back to Ireland last night.
This was an unwelcome inconvenience as it disrupted plans that had been hatched to mark the first day of a curtailed off-season.
O'Donnell missed a flight to New York for a long weekend break, while goalkeeper Gary Rogers had to urgently sort out a different flight home so he could attend a Friday lunchtime medical appointment about a hand injury.
A year of highs really shouldn't have ended like this for the history-makers but the bad memories will fade.
Footballers tend to be pragmatic enough and get on with things. "Obviously there are going to be a couple of departures," said O'Donnell, who is in contract talks with the club. "Whoever is here next year will have another bash."
But left-back Dane Massey did let the guard down when asked to discuss the inevitable loss of Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle.
Massey struck up a fantastic partnership with Horgan on the left while he is close pals with Boyle and they have shared a car pool from Dublin for the past four seasons.
"That's a touchy subject," he said, pausing to find the words. "Yeah, my best mate. That's football isn't it? It happens. Andy is a great lad and if he does go on now, I wish him all the best.
"Ah, it's a touchy subject," repeated Massey, visibly clamming up and indicating that he would much prefer to discuss another subject.
His actions said more than the words and Boyle's representative Patrick Conliffe - from the sports law firm Full Contact - confirmed yesterday that a pre-contract agreement with Preston was signed and sealed. The 25-year-old underwent a medical prior to Dundalk's trip to Israel.
All the indications are that he will go straight into Simon Grayson's first team squad. Players of his age are generally signed for the here and now and Boyle was keen to go somewhere where he has a strong chance of involvement - that's why he was also willing to consider top end League One sides.
At Preston, he can press for inclusion, and he has a short holiday booked before moving to England with a view to sourcing a place to live in the run-up to January when he becomes eligible for selection by the Championship side. They have an FA Cup tie with Arsenal at the start of the month. Horgan could also be pushing for a debut in that fixture if Preston win the race for his services.
Kenny will just have to move on and plan ahead. He still has to complete negotiations with a number of players, with Massey close to agreeing to extend his stay. He feels another European tilt is well within their compass.
"We know what it takes to get to the group stages," he said. "What comes with success is that you will lose players. We've lost them in the past, Pat Hoban and Richie Towell, and pushed on again."
In addition to Massey and O'Donnell, Kenny has yet to reach agreement with key men Dave McMillan, Sean Gannon and Ronan Finn. Winger John Mountney has options in America but will talk to the Dundalk boss next week.
Local lad Ciaran O'Connor will also sit down with Kenny but his younger brother Michael is headed for Sheffield United although he has other suitors too.
Kenny is also expected to enquire about the availability of Dave Mooney who still has 18 months left on his contract at League One side Southend but is wanted by former club Shamrock Rovers.
The Hoops have tied youngsters Trevor Clarke, Sean Boyd, James Doona and Sean Hanney down to new deals.
Cross-city rivals Bohemians have picked up Rob Cornwall after he was released by Rovers and Keith Long has also signed Longford's Kaleem Simon and brought striker Dinny Corcoran back to Dalymount.