So near, yet so far, for Galway United.
Rewind to July and you will find John Caulfield’s side sat second in the League of Ireland First Division, two points behind Cork City with a favourable run of games to come, giving them a genuine shot at a league title and automatic promotion to the Premier Division.
Yet, a calamitous run of six points from their next seven games quelled any hopes of a late title push. The Tribesmen ultimately finished third in what was arguably a two-horse race for the league title, with Waterford FC climbing above them into second.
Optimism was replenished somewhat in the stands at Eamonn Deacy Park through a hard-fought 2-1 comeback victory against Cork on September 16th – hard proof that the side could hold their own when it mattered.
That optimism, however, was misplaced. A shock 2-1 loss to basement side Athlone Town in the penultimate home game of the season re-exposed the side’s frailty and was a preview for the disappointment to follow.
Despite a resounding 6-3 aggregate victory against Longford Town in the First Division promotion play-off semi-finals, the demoralising 3-0 loss to Waterford in the final showed how far John Caulfield’s side still has to go to challenge for silverware.
Now, as the dust settles on what proved to ultimately be a hugely disappointing season for Galway United, fans are left with the abject, yet familiar question of, where next?
John Caulfield’s position is, controversially some may say, not under threat, given that he still has another season to run on a two-year deal he signed at the back end of the 2021 season.
The future of some of the players, on the other hand, is much more uncertain. Several of United’s players performed admirably in spite of the team’s overall inconsistency, and will undoubtedly have admirers across the two divisions.
Given the nature of the league, where players rarely sign deals that last longer than the duration of a single season, United could, in theory, field a completely new team next season.
That, of course, is unlikely. United are one of the few teams in the division that can offer full-time professional football, and with a minimum wage of €430 per week for full-time professionals set to be introduced for the forthcoming season, United are well positioned in the market relative to their peers.
Even still, several players would be well within their rights to seek pastures new, either through feeling as though they’ve outgrown the league, or to seek a new environment after several ill-fated attempts at promotion to the Premier Division.
An early departure has been Conor Kearns, who left the club after two seasons to join Shelbourne in the Premier Division. The 24-year-old goalkeeper certainly won’t be the last to go, although trying to replace him with a player of similar quality is bound to cause headaches in the recruitment department at United.
The picture will also become much clearer on the incomings front once the transfer window officially opens on 1 December, with United in need of a reset after losing several key players during the summer window.
An overhaul of some areas of the squad is much needed, particularly out wide, given the departures of winger Shane Doherty and Newcastle’s latest prodigy, Alex Murphy, during the season.
Whatever the outcome of the winter transfer window, the bottom line is that three successive campaigns have ended in play-off defeat for Galway United, another repeat in 2023 would be hugely damaging.
Off the pitch, Galway United have everything they need to be in the Premier Division. On the pitch, most importantly, they now need to prove they belong there.