Saturday, September 30, 2017

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round: @needhammktfc 1 @DartfordFC 6

Or, as the title suggests, "The Day That The Wheels Fell Off". It was, I'm afraid, not one of the most glorious moments in the eight or so years that I've been intermittently following our local non-league football team. And yet, it had started so promisingly...

The sun was shining brightly on a somewhat busier than usual Bloomfields, as Conference South side Dartford were the visitors, with the promise of knockout drama and a possible giant killing. Alright, Dartford are only one division above Needham Market, but it's quite a big step up from the Bostik League to the Conference South, as a number of teams have found in recent years. And besides, they had been in reasonably good form coming into the match, whereas the Marketmen appeared to be saving their best performances for the road, with a rather poor home record thus far.

The theory is that the underdog has two options, either keep it tight and try to nick a goal from a set piece, or have a go, and Needham Market had clearly chosen the latter, putting the Darts under quite a lot of pressure early on. It all looked promising until, twenty minutes in, a Dartford free kick just outside the box was played along the ground, causing some chaos, and after a scramble, the Dartford number nine, Alfie Pavey, struck a fierce shot past the home keeper.

The sun promptly disappeared behind a cloud. It was an omen, wasn't it...

Whilst Needham weren't obviously downhearted - it was rather against the run of play - it was clear that the goal had settled the visitors and, from a tidy break, a nasty, teasing cross from the left was met by a bullet header from that man Pavey. Thirty-five minutes gone, 2-0 to Dartford.

Needham heads were visibly dropping at this point, and you just had to hope that they could make it to half-time just two down and regroup for the second half. It wasn't to be. In stoppage time, another ball into the box, good strength shown to hold off the defender before hooking a shot past the keeper. Yes, it was a hattrick for Pavey, who else?

The mood in Bloomfields was a resilient one though, and in truth, Dartford had made only four real chances, and a quality striker had taken three of them, none of them that easy. Dartford's more confident distribution, with an ability to move the ball at pace, was at the heart of the gap between the two sides.

The second half kicked off, with the hope that the score could be kept respectable. It didn't last long, as with Needham pushing forward, another lightning break, a well-chosen diagonal through ball and Tom Murphy took a gift-wrapped opportunity to make it 0-4.

It could have been even worse soon afterwards, with Dartford awarded a penalty for a senseless push on Pavey as he had a clear header on goal. The defender was lucky to get away with a yellow card, and had an even luckier escape when the keeper managed to push the penalty onto the bar, the rebound being blazed over it.

The Dartford manager had clearly seen enough to be relaxed about saving key players for the league campaign ahead, and Pavey and Murphy were both substituted on the hour mark. Whilst the substitutes were getting into the game, Needham stepped up a gear and, from a corner, central defender Sam Nunn got above his marker to nod in what was probably only going to be a consolation.

There followed a brighter spell from the hosts but, just as you began to wonder if they might spark an unlikely comeback, Dartford cut them to ribbons. Again, a break from the back, another long diagonal ball cut out the defence, and Andy Pugh had an age to beat the keeper and restore his team's four goal advantage.

With twenty minutes still to go, you feared for the Marketmen, but the game remained pretty open, with both sides looking to add to their tally, until, with seven minutes to go, Warren Mfula, on as a substitute, was on the verge of beating the last defender when he was brought down somewhat clumsily. A red card was the only likely outcome and the referee didn't shirk his responsibility, ending Billy Holland's afternoon with seven minutes to go.

The game rather petered out after that until, in stoppage time, Gareth Heath laid off a hideous back pass to an unsuspecting keeper who just about beat the onrushing striker. Unfortunately, he could only toepoke it to Ryan Hayes, whose precise pass into the net from thirty yards or more put the final gloss on what was an object lesson in how to avoid a Cup upset.

So, a 6-1 beating for the Marketmen, and an emphatic end to the dream of a game against the big boys in November. It would be fair to say that, whilst Dartford were clearly the better side, a five goal margin wasn't reflective of the gap in ability between the two sides. Needham were a bit naive and open at the back, and a bit underpowered up front, where Ryan Gibbs tried his hardest but doesn't yet have the nous or power to compete with more hardened and experienced central defenders.

Back to the league then, and perhaps an FA Trophy run?...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

You can, apparently, never start too early...

I received a telephone call during Conference, whilst walking on the beach, from an unfamiliar telephone number. Admittedly, I don't tend to get an awful lot of telephone calls from people, so my contact list is a bit bereft. On this occasion, it was Paul Clark, my Region's Candidates Chair, with news of a mission. He needs a Returning Officer, and I'm apparently the person for the job.

As I suddenly have some time on my hands, at least, over the medium to long term, I said that I would do it. And so, it's time to reread the Selection Rules, saddle up my trusty ballot box, and set off on the long road towards selecting another PPC.

I've been doing this for some time now, indeed, I've been running candidate selections for the Party for more than two decades, and much has changed in that time. The approval process has become more sophisticated, the Selection Rules have become more, and then less, complicated, but the biggest change is the introduction of more wide-reaching guidance to ensure that our candidates are more diverse than was the case when I started.

Now in truth, that's a thoroughly good thing. It simply shouldn't be the case that the image of a Parliamentary candidate is a middle-aged man in a suit, although it is still an image which flashes a fin in the eyes of many when you discuss politicians. And it takes positive action to generate a spectrum of candidates more reflective of the wider community. Don't start me on what it needs to make Westminster more reflective of society.

You'll pardon me, however, if I'm not very forthcoming as to which constituency it is. It will be a matter for disclosure within the Party soon enough but there is much work to do before I get to that point.

It does allow me an opportunity to remind readers, especially those of a Liberal Democrat persuasion who are ambitious to run for Westminster, that if you think you're ready, it's never too soon to get that application form in...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I'm thinking of writing a motion for next year's Conference...

So, having vented my spleen just a little, one does have to move on. And I have an idea, in that I have an interesting platform as a member of FIRC (which does, now I think of it, have the ring of a group of shadowy figures bent on world domination). After all, I have notional credibility as a commentator on international affairs in the Party.

Why not write a motion on something that interests me then?

That something is intervention abroad, what criteria should be applied, what changes to governance are necessary and how might they be resourced. More than a decade ago, I came up with a similar document for Americans for Democratic Action, albeit a much simpler one than I'd want now, which laid down the core criteria for intervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states.

Now, before you reach for your smelling salts, dear reader, I'm not a natural interventionist. More harm has been done in recent years by botched interventions in the affairs of countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria than could be stated in a simple blog entry, yet as a country which still has a reputation for decency and fair play, we could play a valuable role in world trouble spots.

So, I welcome any suggestions of people I should talk to, or ideas that might be added. Think of it as an informal policy working group with an unusually narrow focus.

And now, time to read the drafting guidance for policy motions as produced by Federal Conference Committee...

Federal International Relations Committee: the official unofficial report...

So, I've written a report for Liberal Democrat Voice on what happened at Sunday's meeting of the Federal International Relations Committee, as I promised I would do when I ran for election in the first place. Read it, why don't you. It is, as you might guess, a reasonably neutral version of events for, after all, Liberal Democrat Voice represents a kind of unofficial official record. 

Here, I don't have to be quite so restrained.

The input from our guests from the ALDE Party Bureau, Timmy Dooley TD, and Henrik Bach Mortensen, was genuinely interesting. To read the debate in the United Kingdom you could easily believe that there are only two parties to the Brexit negotiations, "Europe" and the United Kingdom. But, of course, that isn't entirely accurate, in that there are twenty-seven nation states on the other side of the table, and a whole slew of interested parties beyond the European Union who might be impacted by any deal.

We heard of the sadness at the breach in our relationships with neighbouring countries, of the impact on the economies of Denmark and Ireland. Our Brexiteer friends will rely on that to claim that they wouldn't put that at risk, but they're wrong. They will realign their trading towards Germany, in the case of Denmark, or look to other markets, in the case of Ireland, because the losses that would arise from a breakdown of the Single Market are far worse than any losses due to Brexit. The less barriers to free trade there are, the better, and the Single Market has achieved just that.

Our Belgian guest, Bart Somers, was pretty inspiring. His application of core liberal principles in addressing the causes of radicalisation in the community was something that should be brought to the attention of liberals in local government everywhere. In that sense, his time was better spent addressing the LGA and ALDC crowd than an international relations committee, but I learnt much from his approach.

The Committee itself continues to bumble along, without any sense of strategic vision. You could argue that, in the absence of a clear steer from the Federal Board (they're still working on developing one, in fairness), but too much of the Committee's efforts are last minute, ad hoc and ineffectual. I did my best to create some basic structure and process, but I do feel like a lone voice, a practical Roundhead in a world of Cavaliers. Funnily enough, the Roundheads won in the end. All I have to do is find the best strategy, I guess.

As an example, ALDE Party Congress takes place in early December, and the deadline for submitting motions is coming up fast. And yet, despite me including it in every agenda up to the point of my resignation as Secretary, nothing was done about starting the process of coming up with some resolutions. Now, something may be cobbled together at the last minute. Given that the Congress is an annual event, you wonder that nobody has given the problem much thought earlier than this. Bluntly, I don't anymore, my expectations are that low.

The Committee is in danger of becoming an ineffectual talking shop, making decisions either in haste or at the whim of key individuals, and it requires a greater sense of active engagement from its members. It is not enough to simply turn up at meetings, react to events and then leave things to slumber on, relying on our remarkably capable but hideously under-resourced International Officer to keep the show on the road.

I do not despair though, because I have my own thoughts as to how I can make a difference, and rather than rely on the formal structure, I'm minded to be more creative.

Watch this space...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming up with a blog title is harder than you might think...

I've been blogging for a long time now, nearly twelve years, in fact, and I still wouldn't claim to be very good at it. I write modestly well, but do so infrequently and slightly erratically. I'm also worryingly reasonable and tend to shy away from those extremes of opinion that draw readers like moths to a flame. But that's enough about me. Well, sort of.

Once upon a time, this blog was called "Liberal Bureaucracy". That made sense, as I was a liberal and a bureaucrat. However, eventually, life changed, and I switched to "The View from Creeting St Peter", in part to reflect my new life as a country dweller. It never entirely felt right though, so I reverted to "Liberal Bureaucracy". The catch is that it doesn't truly reflect who I am, and rather pigeonholes me as the house bureaucrat. I am, I am reliably informed, rather more than that.

So, I'm going to give some thought to a new title for the blog, as part of a gentle relaunch. Don't offer up suggestions, I'm going to have to do this in my own...

Some thoughts in advance of Federal International Relations Committee

So, word has got out that I resigned as Secretary of the Committee, and "Liberator" has reported the story in their usual style. If you're interested, and I'm not sure that the resignation of a minor figure on an obscure internal party committee is particularly newsworthy, you can read the story there. However, my first meeting since then takes place this morning, and I ought to let you know what I'll be focussing on there.

My aim since being elected to the Committee at the end of last year has been to try and enable it to fulfil its functions and comply with the Party's Constitution. It isn't glamorous, but it is important - drafting standing orders, creating process sufficient to deliver key goals, that sort of thing. And, naturally, that work is ongoing.

And now, my attention turns to policy. Federal International Relations Committee is expected to advise the Party, and the Parliamentary Parties, on international and European policy, and I'm keen to make us relevant to the debate. That means developing policy in conjunction with Federal Policy Committee, it means drafting and submitting motions to Party Conferences, it means looking at potential future issues and considering how a liberal response would look.

We aren't alone in that. Word reaches me that the "Your Liberal Britain" team are looking into the creation of a number of committees, focusing on particular policy areas. There are also specialist groups in the Party, such as the various "Friends of" groups and the Liberal Democrat European Group, which have an interest in elements of international policy.

And so, I'm proposing the formation of a Policy sub-committee, tasked with coming up with new policy ideas, studying current priorities and seeking a clearer picture of what we should be doing in terms of a response. It would also take a lead on drafting resolutions for debate at ALDE Party and Liberal International Congresses, using our time more effectively and in a more organised way.

At the moment, FIRC doesn't really consider policy in an organised way - there just isn't enough time and, in any event, good policy making is organic and evolutionary, rather than impulsive.

Apart from that, we've got a very busy agenda, with three ALDE guests participating in the meeting - Timmy Dooley and Henrik Bach Mortensen, two of Ros's fellow Vice-Presidents, and Bart Somers, a prominent liberal mayor from Mechelen, in Belgium. There'll be planning for the forthcoming ALDE Party Congress in Amsterdam in early December, and a delegation is being put together in anticipation.

We'll also be talking about the future of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats, who are undergoing something of a remodelling following a large increase in their membership. A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to come up with a structure that allows them optimal autonomy whilst addressing key compliance issues, and I'm hoping that a way forward will emerge this week.

So, much to do, and much to be getting on with...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round: Needham Market 2 Chesham United 0

Unfortunately, being a Liberal Democrat kept me away from this afternoon's match at Bloomfields, but that didn't prevent me from vicariously following the game through the wonders of Twitter. And it was good news for the Marketmen in their rather harder follow-up to the game at Clapton.

Chesham United are at a similar level to Needham Market, and play in the Southern League, but given that the Conference South teams enter the competition at this stage, it would have considered a relatively benign draw. But games like that have to be won, and with £4,500 going to the winner, there was a lot riding on it.

The deadlock was broken by Callum Harrison, just before the half-hour mark, and a Dan Morphew goal early in the second half allowed Needham Market to go through in relatively unflustered fashion.

It begins to get serious now, with the chance of a First Round proper tie against a League One or League Two team on the not so distant horizon, only two wins away. The Conference National teams come in at the Fourth Qualifying Round stage, but before that, fingers will be crossed for a benevolent draw, avoiding some of the Conference South teams that remain in the draw. Oh, and yes, there's the small matter of £7,500 for the winner of a Third Qualifying Round match, a tidy sum for a team like Needham Market.

So, come on the Marketmen in two weeks time! And, if it's possible, I'll be there...

Saturday, September 02, 2017

FA Cup, First Qualifying Round: Clapton 0 Needham Market 3

On the face of it, it looks like a fairly straightforward triumph for the Tier 3 team, away at the Tier 5 wannabe giant killers. In truth, for the first hour or so, it was rather more even, as a bobbly, hard pitch with some interesting features gave Needham Market a few puzzles to solve.

With seemingly very few home fans in the ground, the two teams kicked off in bright, even warm, sunshine with little active crowd support. It was quickly evident that Needham's preferred style of play, involving balls to feet, wasn't too clever, with erratic bounce and an apparent ridge running along the middle of the pitch from goal to goal. 

Clapton were enthusiastic, if a bit erratic, but when some suspect defending let one of their strikers in, it looked for all the world as though they would take the lead. He rounded the keeper, and had a clear sight on goal at close range, but managed to find the defender on the goal line. It should have been one-nil, but even such a scare didn't seem to provoke a meaningful response from the visitors.

Midway through the first half, it became apparent why the crowd was so thin. At the end of the ground, where an alleyway runs against the fencing, a group of maybe fifty or so suddenly bobbed into view, singing and chanting on their team. It was the legendary Clapton Ultras, who are boycotting home matches until the loathed Chairman and purported owner of Clapton FC, Vince McBean, goes away. They were in fine voice, and with much to sing about, as what chances there were tended to fall to the home side. Whilst Needham looked like the better team, had they been behind at half-time, it wouldn't have been unjust.

The second half began in fairly similar fashion, with Needham struggling to string passes together, but the tactics had clearly changed, with the ball spending more time in the air, rather than on the ground. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, as the Marketmen began to dominate.

66 minutes in, and the breakthrough came, Gareth Heath scoring his first goal since joining the club from arch-rivals Leiston during the summer (they're arch-rivals due to the fact that they always seem to give us a bit of a hiding...). And, to be honest, that was about it as far as suspense goes, as it seemed to me that the Clapton players seemed to know that the game was up.

Needham tightened the screw without ever seeming to be played to their full potential, and goals from Luke Ingram, after some neat play, and Callum Harrison with a fiercely struck effort from twenty yards or so clinched a place in the next round.

I had a train to catch, so couldn't hang around, but I did talk to a few of the Ultras on my way past. They're mostly young, pretty radical, and very committed to their football and the community around them. They're also friendly, unless you're a fascist and/or racist. It's almost a pity that they didn't hang on for a replay, as they might well have proved welcome visitors to Bloomfields.

And so, we await Monday's draw. The Conference North and South teams enter at this stage, but a home draw against FC Romania might be interesting... Come on you Marketmen!

It's time once again for the romance of the FA Cup but first, a big shout to the @Real_ClaptonFC and the @ClaptonUltras...

One of the advantages of Needham Market FC's rise to Non-League's Tier 3, is that there's none of this messing around with preliminary rounds. Oh no, it's straight into the First Qualifying Round, with only four ties to be negotiated before the potential of a glamour tie against the likes of Blackburn Rovers or Charlton Athletic.
And so, I've come down to East London, to see if the Marketmen can safely negotiate the first hurdle, away to Clapton. It's only a game of football, right? But life is seldom that simple...

Clapton were, once upon a time, a power in amateur football in the days when that mattered. Three times winners of the FA Amateur Cup, capable of drawing huge crowds - 12,000 saw them play Tottenham Hotspur in 1898-99 - and three of their team played for England in 1922-23. They were also the first club side to play in Continental Europe, beating a Belgian XI in 1890.

Now, they play in the Essex Senior League, in a ground under serious threat, and with an owner whose motives are, if critics are to be believed, suspicious at best. The home fans are boycotting home games, under the slogan, "Support The Team, Not The Regime!", and as they are evidently the good guys, one feels vaguely guilty about putting money in the pocket of the owner.

So, take a look at the Real Clapton FC website, and if you back them, make a donation. I'm sure that they'll appreciate it...