ANTICIPATION is building ahead of the biggest game in Needham Market’s history.
The club host Vanarama National League South side Dartford in the fifth round proper – that’s the last 16 – of the Buildbase FA Trophy on Saturday, February 12th.
With the Suffolk side just three wins away from a potential final at Wembley, interest in the tie is growing by the day.
And while all eyes will focus on events on the Bloomfields pitch come kick-off, preparations have been going on behind-the-scenes since the draw was made.
Needham pulled off a major upset when they went to Yeovil Town in the previous round and knocked out the club who were playing in the Football League Championship as recently as the 2013-14 season.
Their victory 8-7 on penalties following a 1-1 draw was the second successive round that Needham, who play at Step 3 in the Southern League Premier Central Division, had defeated a Vanarama National League side.
For volunteers like Dave Clarke, the club’s commercial manager, it has been all systems go as the village side prepare for the tie.
Clarke (pictured above) started regularly supporting the club ten years ago, attending matches with his then 16-year-old son Ben, who became known as ‘Drummer Boy’ as he used to stand behind the goal Needham were attacking banging his drum.
The 67-year-old, who is founder and co-owner of family business Clarke Fencing who installed the spectator rail at Bloomfields, became a sponsor and then took on the role of commercial manager five years ago.
He said: “Sales of club merchandise – scarves, bobble hats and beanie hats – have more than trebled since we won the last round.
“The response to the match itself from our current sponsors has been phenomenal. When I started going round to local businesses they already knew about the match.
“The Windscreen Company, our main sponsors, jumped at the chance to sponsor the match, while the business community in Needham Market have rallied round and are taking adverts in the match programme.
“When I went to see Hadleigh Tyres, who are one of our sponsors, they told me that six of their staff are finishing work early on the Saturday so that they can come to the game.
“We have had people coming into the ground asking where they can get tickets from for the game, and that’s something we have never experienced before.”
Tickets (priced at £11 for adults, £7 for concessions [60+], £1 for children aged 12-16, with children under-12 years of age free) are on sale online via the club's website.
“We have kept admission prices the same as for a league game as we wanted to reward our loyal supporters,” said Clarke.
Dartford are expected to bring between 200 and 300 spectators, some who will be arriving on the club’s iconic double-decker bus they use for away matches.
Needham Market Reserves’ Thurlow Nunn League Division One North fixture at home to Leiston Reserves has been brought forward to the Friday night so that the players, management and staff can all support the first team.
Needham Market's Jake Dye is tackled from behind during their 2-1 victory over Wealdstone at Bloomfields in the Buildbase FA Trophy Third Round Proper tie in December. Photograph: Amy Gilson
Clarke is wary of making any prediction as to the size of the attendance at Bloomfields for the tie.
The ground capacity is 2,000, with the record attendance the 1,748 who watched the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round tie versus Cambridge United on October 26th 2013.
Clarke continued: “We contacted Ipswich Town, who have been really helpful and are supplying six of their stewards, with the cost being covered through the gate receipts.
“We haven’t got a massive fan base, so took the decision two years ago to stop producing a club programme for home matches as we were losing £800 on it each season.
“Since then the programme has been available online so people can download it. However, Gipping Press are producing a special commemorative 36-page programme for this match.
“And a souvenir poster celebrating the club’s victory over Yeovil Town in the previous round will be on sale.
“It was (Needham striker) Luke Ingram’s idea to get Ben Pooley, our club photographer, to take the shot of the squad and staff in the goalmouth with the scoreboard above showing we had won 8-7 on penalties.”
Thirty guests, which is three times as many as usual, will have a buffet lunch in the Hub Café and Bar in the clubhouse situated between the two pitches at Bloomfields.
The Manchester United versus Southampton match in the FA Premier League, which kicks-off at 12.30pm, will be available to watch on the various television screens around the club.
Clarke continued: “You want to put on a good spectacle on the day, so pitch preparation is important to ensure both teams have a good surface to play on.
“We have postponed all games on the grass pitch for seven days from the previous Saturday, in order to work on the pitch.
“We have used some of the prize money from our run to purchase new equipment costing £1,800 for Kenny Thorpe, our volunteer groundsman, and we have got Parkers Pitches coming in to do some work on the Tuesday and Wednesday.”
And when the players walk out on to the pitch they will be greeted by boys and girls from the club’s under-13 and 14 teams who will form a guard of honour.
Needham have so far netted £18,950 in prize money for reaching the fifth round proper of the competition, after overcoming St Ives Town, (2-0), Margate (3-2), Welwyn Garden City (3-1), Wealdstone (2-1) and Yeovil Town (1-1 – 8-7 on penalties).
They stand to pick up a further £6,000 (they will receive £1,750 even if they are knocked out) should they defeat Dartford and move a step closer to appearing in the final at Wembley.