Fermanagh's summer ends with heavy defeat to Kildare
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifying round four
Fermanagh 0-18 Kildare 3-20
RORY Gallagher has conceded that the gap between his Fermanagh team and top sides like Donegal and Kildare is significant and will take time to bridge.
The restorative effect of the qualifiers was plain to see on Saturday evening as Kildare claimed their fourth win in a row in the series to book a Super 8 spot.
Yet the back door series, and particularly round four Qualifier games, rarely favours beaten provincial finalists and Fermanagh were the latest to succumb.
Gallagher blamed missed opportunities in the first-half – they struck seven wides and hit the crossbar with a goal chance – as part of the reason they slipped out of the game early.
But the former Donegal manager said the bigger picture is that despite beating Armagh and Monaghan in a memorable Ulster campaign, their last two outings confirmed how far off the big teams they are.
"At the start of the year, we just said we'll go in here and we'll work really, really hard," said Gallagher.
"We wanted promotion from Division Three and we got that. We wanted to win a Championship match, because some of the boys had only beaten Antrim, who'd be ranked below them in Ulster in the last six years, and we did. But we found out there is a big gap in everything we're doing, between ourselves and Donegal and between ourselves and Kildare.
"There's a huge amount (to improve on). That Kildare team is moulded for a number of years. Physically they're very well developed. Skill-wise they're very, very good and I think tactically they're strong as well. Likewise with Donegal. Both days we struggled on the opposition kick-out. We've just got to improve in those areas."
Gallagher's disappointment shortly after full-time in Navan on Saturday evening was in contrast to 12 months ago when he managed Donegal to a Qualifier win over Meath there.
Yet for the Fermanagh players it must have felt like Groundhog Day as they leaked another three goals at the venue where they lost 3-15 to 0-6 to Meath in last year's Allianz League.
They trailed this time from the second minute of the game, when Keith Cribbin opened the scoring for Kildare with a point, until full-time.
And when Daniel Flynn – Kildare's key performer in attack alongside in-form players like Neil Flynn, Kevin Feely and Fergal Conway – netted in the seventh minute it already looked ominous.
By half-time the Leinster outfit led 1-13 to 0-5 and the gap was 14 points with 55 minutes on the clock.
"Despite defending horrifically in the first-half, we had enough of the ball and enough chances to have nine, 10 or 11 points on the board," said Gallagher.
"That's the disappointing thing. Kildare were very clinical but a lot of that is down to the poor level of our intensity and the poor level of tackling and work rate that we put in in the first-half.
"We upped it considerably in the second-half, albeit it was always going to be a massive challenge. But our conversion rate was very, very poor, particularly in the first-half.
"It hasn't been great all year. It's probably down to taking wrong decisions, that leads to a bit of panic. And sometimes when you drop the ball short in particular, and the other teams get the counter-attack, it causes a lot of trouble."
Kildare troubled Fermanagh's defence whichever way they chose to play, by going direct or by running the ball through the lines with high paced movements.
Flynn's goal came via route one when Conway caught the kick-out and booted it goalwards to the full-forward who won possession, sidestepped his man and slotted home.
But other Kildare scores came from multiple passes or pieces of individual flair, like Flynn's point that closed out the first-half scoring which was set up by a wonderful Feely fist pass.
The two manager's use of substitutes told a tale of proceedings too. Fermanagh introduced five players by the 46th minute as they chased inspiration, while Kildare had five players withdrawn by the 55th as they rested key performers.
Tomas Corrigan and Sean Quigley scored 0-5 between them from play when they came on, raising the inevitable question about why they didn't start.
"You look at the balance of the team, there's a huge amount to the game, there's players going well in training," responded Gallagher.
"Tomas hasn't been fully fit, only in the last couple of weeks, all year. I thought he played really, really well and was champing at the bit.
"And we just decided to go with Seamie from the start rather than Sean, we haven't went with the two of them all year."
Kildare's fourth win in a row, securing a Super 8 place this week, amounted to redemption after crashing out of the Leinster championship to Carlow in May.
"I definitely think we're a more mature team because of the Carlow result," Kildare manager Cian O'Neill said.
"We've learned lessons in those matches since that we wouldn't have learned. And I think we're the better for it. Does that convert into performances in the Super 8s? We'll have to wait and see."
Kildare: M Donnellan; P Kelly (0-1), M O'Grady, D Hyland; J Byrne, E Doyle, K Flynn (0-2); K Cribbin (0-1), T Moolick (0-1); F Conway (0-1), P Cribbin (0-1), P Brophy (0-2); N Flynn (1-5, 3f), K Feely (0-1), D Flynn (1-3)
Subs: F Dowling for Moolick 44, C Healy (1-2) for Feely 46, N Kelly for P Cribbin 49, D Slattery for K Cribbin 52, E Callaghan for D Flynn 55, M Hyland for N Flynn 63
Fermanagh: P Cadden; C Cullen, L Cullen, M Jones; B Mulrone (0-1), D McCusker (0-1), A Breen; E Donnelly, T Clarke; D Teague, R Jones (0-2), J McMahon (0-1); R Corrigan (0-1), Seamus Quigley (0-7, 6f), C Jones
Subs: K Connor for Teague 24, T Corrigan (0-2) for Breen 32, R Lyons for C Jones 36, P McCusker for Clarke 43, Sean Quigley (0-3) for R Corrigan 46, C Magee for Mulrone 59
Referee: C Lane (Cork)