ROBERT Peace will be ‘immensely proud’ when Needham Market line-up in the FA Cup on Saturday.
It is the first time that the club, who play at Step 3 of the Non-League Pyramid, have progressed to the First Round Proper of the competition in their 103-year history.
The Pitching In Southern League Premier Central side have been drawn away to EFL League One side Burton Albion, who are languishing near the foot of the table.
The tie epitomises the magic of the FA Cup – and it will be a special day for Peace on two counts.
Not only was Peace, who is the club’s Academy and Operations Director, born in Burton-Upon-Trent, but around half of the Marketmen’s 16-man squad have come through the club’s Academy.
Peace said: “I lived in Burton until I was five-years-old, when my parents moved to East Bergholt, although family on my dad’s side still live in the Burton area.
“I am hoping my family from Burton will be at the game and could have around ten family members watching.
“I was excited by the draw as it is a club that means a lot to me – I went to watch my first professional game at Burton’s old ground and have also been to their current ground to watch them play.
“Before the draw was made you looked at some of the sides in it – Ipswich Town, Derby Country, Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth – clubs who have played in the Premier League and have big grounds and hope you get an away tie against one of them.
“But on a personal level I would have chosen to play Burton, so it is a good draw for me. They are a League One side, which is the highest-ranked league in the competition at this stage, so as a club we would have taken it as well.
“I remember watching them play when they were in the Conference (now the National League) and they won promotion to League Two and worked their way up to the Championship.
“Although they are now a League One club they have worked really hard to sustain their status.”
Needham have also worked hard to ensure they are sustainable as a football club, and their Academy has been paramount to achieving that.
Captain Keiran Morphew was injured but Jake Dye, Hugh Cullum, Tom Fitzgerald and Noah Collard all started in the last round when Needham defeated National League side Maidstone United 1-0.
Taylor Clark and Seth Chambers, who are second-year Academy students, were on the bench along with substitute goalkeeper Fin Shorten, and all eight players are expected to be involved this weekend.
Needham Market players celebrate Luke Ingram's winning goal in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round against Maidstone United at Bloomfields. Main photograph: Needham Market Academy and Operations Director Robert Peace (centre) with Seth Chambers (left) and Jake Dye (right) who have both come through the club's Academy. Photographs: Ben Pooley
Peace said: “I will be immensely proud that the club’s Academy has produced players of that calibre.”
Former Ipswich Town, Manchester City and West Ham United player Kevin Horlock, who ended his career at Needham, runs the Academy as well as being the club’s first-team manager.
Peace said: “Kevin, myself and Graham Emmerson, the club’s CEO, wanted us to be able to produce players who were good enough for the first team and have that pathway.
“There is no fear of playing them in big matches, and that was proven by our run in the FA Trophy last season.”
Peace, who has been at the club eight years, continued: “In the last round against Maidstone every one of our players produced a nine-out-of-ten performance.
“Keiran (Morphew) and ‘Patch’ (Patrick Brothers) were both injured, but Hugh Cullum and Fitzy came in and were both outstanding in what was probably the biggest game either of them have played in. Hugh is just 18 and Fitzy 20, so both are still very young players.
“What Kevin has done is bring in people who are not only good players but good characters to create the right environment to help the young players at the club develop and progress.
“We want young players at the club to emulate what Callum Page (currently on the playing staff at Ipswich Town) has done by signing a professional contract.”
Horlock is confident that several of his squad will play at a higher level in the careers, whether that is with Needham Market or elsewhere, but Saturday’s tie will be the biggest yet in their careers.
Full back and Academy graduate Jake Dye said: “Burton Albion is a big club and this is the biggest match in the club’s history but we will go into the match in the same head space and approach it as we do with other matches.
“This match will be more difficult but an experience we will never forget. It is always special to play at a Football League ground, something that we do not do very often, and the match will mean a lot to the staff and volunteers who put in a lot of work at the club.”
Striker and Academy second-year student Seth Chambers said: “I am looking forward to when the first whistle goes and that feeling inside – it will be a great atmosphere.
“It is a good opportunity for someone my age to be involved and nice to play on a quality pitch and have the spotlight on you. I am also looking forward to the build-up this week as there is a buzz around the club.”
The last word goes to Peace, who said: “It is the magic of the FA Cup. It is the biggest game in the club’s history and the first time we have been in the First Round Proper.
“I am sure Burton Albion will give us the utmost respect, but we have already beaten Yeovil away (in the FA Trophy last season) and the lads will be up for it and give it their all.”