As this season winds towards its end, one small town in Suffolk’s football club is continuing its upward trajectory. Needham Market FC are in the play-off places in the Ryman League Division One North, only sixteen years after they were still competing in the amateur Suffolk & Ipswich League. Andy Ollerenshaw went to see what they’re getting so right there at the moment.

As the 2011-12 season reaches its climax, news of football clubs battling for continued existence still grab the headlines. From Glasgow Rangers to Northwich Victoria, Portsmouth to Port Vale, there’s a sad acceptance that there will always be a ‘club in crisis’ story loitering just around the next corner. Many clubs, who fail to heed the blindingly obvious lessons learned through witnessing bedfellows wither and die, plough on regardless. It is therefore refreshing, every now and then, to stumble across a club quietly going about its business the right way, with its collective feet firmly planted in a huge bucket of realism.

Needham Market is an old wool combing town in the heart of Suffolk and has a quintessential rural feel to it. The town’s football club play at Bloomfields, a ground bordered by farmland, allotments and houses that mark the western limits of the town. Needham Market Football Club was formed in 1919 and as recently as 1996 were playing county football in the Suffolk & Ipswich League; that year they won the league and were promoted to the Eastern Counties League Division 1 and eventually gained promotion to the Premier Division in 2010. A couple of impressive FA Vase campaigns put the club on the national non-League radar, reaching the last 32 in 2006 and the Semi-Final in 2008. On both occasions they were beaten by the eventual winners, Nantwich Town and Kirkham & Wesham respectively.

They currently play at Step 4 of the National League Pyramid in Isthmian League Division One North. 2010-11 was Needham’s inaugural season at this level and they exceeded all expectations, finishing runners-up behind East Thurrock United. In a heart-breaking play-off Semi-Final they lost 3-1 at home to Brentwood Town, a team that had finished a full eighteen points below them in the league.

Needham are once again challenging for a play-off place this season. I visited the club for an April home league fixture with Romford. In a game that the hosts could have finished off by half-time, they nervously surrendered a 3-1 lead and were disappointed with only a single point in a highly entertaining 3-3 draw. As impressive as their performances have been on the pitch – they are the league’s top scorers this season – there are many more things to be impressed about behind the scenes at Bloomfields.

Most evident is that Needham Market FC is very much a family-orientated community club. I spoke with Mark Coleman, a General Committee member, who runs the clubs Twitter account. In a roomy modern clubhouse we chatted as he bottle-fed his young baby, whilst the contented chatter of mixed generations of families filled the air. Over the years Coleman has watched a lot of local football but explained that he was “drawn to the club” in 2006 because “there was always a great atmosphere here, a massive family atmosphere”. He has stayed ever since.

Coleman is one of an unusually large committee at Needham, which are around 30 strong. Clubs at this level rely heavily on unpaid help, people giving freely of their time – and more often than not the contents of their wallets – to help where they can. One of the reasons that non-League clubs face daily battles for survival is that they are only able to count on a very small number of volunteers who simply cannot do everything. If the size of the committee at Needham alone is anything to go by, then the Suffolk club are in pretty good shape.

The Club Secretary is ex-player Mark Easlea. Aged only 32, he is refreshingly young for this role and it comes as no surprise to learn that he does much more; he is also the club’s Disciplinary Officer and Programme Editor. He is however the first to admit that the club ”has a big committee that we call upon regularly” to carry out the numerous jobs required. There’s an endearing relationship between the locals and the club, typified by Life President Derrick Bloomfield who Easlea tells me has been “involved with the club close on 70 years. He is a club stalwart who over the years has done every job here, right from the top [position] to sweeping out the changing rooms”.

Needham Market owns its ground and the land it sits on, which is a real boon. They also own land next to the ground that is used for training and for their youth academy. Easlea’s father Richard is, amongst other things, the Academy Coordinator, and both father and son visibly glow with pride when talking about the new youth set-up. The academy was started this season and Easlea says “we have 24 lads, full-time, who have lessons at the club from a teacher and are then coached by Kevin Horlock”. Having the ex-Manchester City and Northern Ireland professional on board delights Easlea who adds “we have 30 youngsters signed up for next season and its marvellous to see the academy progressing at a rate of knots”. The club has whole-heartedly bought into the philosophy of youth development, recognising the associated benefits.

One of the most significant headaches for any non-League club is the constant battle to attract financial support from local businesses, a problem exacerbated in the current economic climate. Needham appears to be coping well on this front. The pitch at Bloomfields is surrounded by a boarded perimeter rail, and one of the first things that struck me during my visit was that every single inch of perimeter space was taken up by sponsorship signage. For a Step 4 club this is quite remarkable; many at this level struggle to garner the most basic of sponsorship deals let alone sponsorship around all of the ground. Needham’s sponsorship levels are more than just impressive; a glance at their website or their matchday programme – a quite incredible 25 pages of the programme for the Romford game was given over to advertisements – paints a financially sound picture.

There is a lot of competition in this part of Suffolk, competition for players, supporters and hard cash. Ipswich Town is only a few miles away, but other clubs such as Bury Town, Leiston, AFC Sudbury and Lowestoft Town are competing for finite resources. The town has a population of only 5,000 so the club do well to attract attendances around the 250 mark. [Mark] Easlea initiated a scheme this season where, for half a dozen games, season-ticket holders at Ipswich Town and Colchester United were admitted for half-price, introducing many news fans to the club.

So Needham Market FC is reaping the benefits of a great deal of hard work behind the scenes. Those involved in the game know that none of this comes easy; the administration in running a Step 4 club, the running of a youth academy, the sponsorship – all these things require a huge amount of effort and dedication. But the club seems to be able to tap into local enthusiasm in spades, to a degree rarely witnessed at other clubs. Where I’ve seen other non-League outfits struggle with help from only one or two people, in this part of Suffolk there appears to be an abundance of people who want to help out, simply because they love the club and recognise its role in the community. Maybe the community spirit is stronger in this market town than perhaps in some of the bigger non-rural cities and towns, but whatever the reason, Needham Market Football Club seems to have got it right. And in these troubled times, that’s a breath of fresh (country) air.

There is a gallery of photographs from last weekend’s match between Needham Market and Romford, courtesy of our good friend David Bauckham, here.

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