Newbold, Chesterfield born left half Ernest “Nudger” Needham is one of the great figures in the history of Sheffield United and of late Victorian/Edwardian football. He began his football career with junior club Waverley in 1889 and played for Staveley Town in 1890, as well as representing the Sheffield F.A.. He joined Northern League Sheffield United in April 1891, and stayed 18 years with The Blades until his retirement in 1909. When Sheffield United were admitted to the newly formed Second Division, his Football League debut came in their inaugural League fixture against Lincoln City at Bramall Lane in September 1892. He missed only two matches as The Blades were promoted to the First Division at the end of the season, finishing Second Division runners up.
Short yet solidly built and blessed with immense stamina, he was fast, resolute and brave, he was an outstanding player, his consistently accomplished and energetic displays made him the star of the side and won him the title, ‘The Prince of half backs’. Writer Alfred Gibson made the following comments about Needham in 1906:
“There is one thing which has made Earnest Needham stand out of the common run of halves; he is neither a constructive nor a destructive half-back alone; he is both at once. One moment you will see him falling back to the defence of his own goal, or checking the speedy rush of his wing; the next, he is up with his forwards, feeding them to a nicety, and always making the best of every opening. Where he gets his pace from is a mystery. He never seems to be racing, yet he must be moving at racing pace; he never seems to be exhausted, yet in a big game he is practically doing three men’s work.”
Known as a fine shot, Needham also possessed great ball control: “This is one of the secrets of his greatness for very seldom when he has the ball is he deprived of it, whilst the accuracy of his wing passes, and the telling force of his punches straight across the field to an unprotected wing, spell danger to any kind of defence.”
He won his first England international cap in a 2-2 draw with Scotland at Celtic Park, Glasgow, on 7th April, 1894. He won his second England cap a year later, also against Scotland, in a 3-0 victory at Goodison Park, and became a regular in England’s line up from 1896, winning a further 14 caps through to his final England appearance against Wales at Wrexham in March 1902. In those 16 internationals he scored 3 times and captained his country once, in a 6-0 win over Wales at St James’ Park in March 1901. He also represented The Football League on 10 occasions.
His club career for Sheffield United continued no less stellar. He was appointed captain of Sheffield United in 1895. In the 1896-97 season Sheffield United were League runners-up behind the double-winning Aston Villa. The team conceded just 29 goals throughout the campaign and the club had easily the best defensive record in the Football League. Sheffield United then went one better and won the League Championship in the 1897-1898 season. Needham scored 8 League goals during the campaign missing only one match.
While the club then struggled the following year in the League, The Blades beat Derby County in the 1899 FA Cup Final, winning 4-1 at The Crystal Palace to win The Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
Needham was in great form in the 1899-1900 season and once again Sheffield United had the best defensive record in the League. The club again finished runners up to Aston Villa. The following season Needham was a member of the Sheffield United team that reached the 1901 FA Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur. Needham and the other players were on a £10 win bonus. However, the Southern League side was on a promise of £25 a man if they won the Cup. The Final, in front of a crowd of 111,000 at The Crystal Palace ended in a 2-2 draw. However, a week later Spurs won the replay 3-1 at Burnden Park, Bolton. The next year this defeat was avenged. Needham captained the Sheffield United team that played Southampton in the 1902 FA Cup Final. While the first game at The Crystal Palace again finished as a draw, United won the replay at the same venue a week later courtesy of Billy Barnes’ goal in the 79th minute.
Needham was a regular in the team until the end of the 1908-09 season and played his last match for The Blades at Bolton Wanderers in January 1910, by when he had scored 63 goals in 513 appearances for the club during their Football League years.
He also played first class cricket for Derbyshire from 1901 to 1912. Before playing for Derbyshire, Needham is recorded playing in a match for Liverpool and District against Cambridge University in 1898. He made his debut for Derbyshire in June 1901 against a South African team, and scored 57 in his first innings but was out for a duck in the second. In 1903 he made his first century against Hampshire. He scored 47 in his one innings in the game at Chesterfield in 1904 when visitors Essex set an unwanted record by losing despite amassing 597 in their first innings. In 1907 Needham scored 119 against Hampshire and in 1908 scored three centuries. He scored 104 against Worcestershire and two centuries in one match against Essex, 107 and 104, although this was not enough to stave off defeat. In 1910 he made his top score of 159 against Leicestershire and in 1911 he made 103 against Nottinghamshire. He played regularly every season until 1911 however he played only three games for Derbyshire in 1912 before retirement.
His nephew George Wright Needham played for Derby County, Gillingham and Northampton Town after the First World War.