Love them, loathe them, don’t particularly care about them, if you’re interested in football then the chances are you come across Hashtag United FC. The brainchild of British YouTube star Spencer Owen (Spencer FC on YouTube), “The Tags” have seen their popularity skyrocket since their creation. They’ve gained a sizeable following in the last few weeks following their early success in the FA Cup qualifying rounds, with many social media stars attending games and continuing to tweet their support and admiration for what the club are doing. *As they play in the 9th tier of English football (or step 5 of the National League), they are able to have supporters at their ground as per Government guidelines*. Some of them included Jack Dean (better known as JaackMaate on YouTube), David Vujanic, Ellis Platten (who I am a massive fan of, just saying), Thogden, Elliot Hackney and many more. They’re changing the way non-league football is viewed by the neutral or supporters of bigger teams, be it for better or worse. Today, I’ll be taking a look at the short history of the team, why I think they’re changing non-league football and whether some of the criticism they’ve received is fair or not.
Picture the scene, it’s March 2016. Donald Trump is about to win the Republican Party nomination for the 2016 US Election, David Cameron hasn’t long announced the UK will have a referendum on its EU membership, Jamie Vardy was having one hell of a party with Leicester getting closer and closer to a Premier League title and for Welsh football fans a summer of a lifetime was just around the corner (reminiscing over it whilst sat in my room in a very rainy Swansea is making me sad, I can’t begin to stress how much I wish it was Euro 2016 again), but it’s also the time Hashtag United were founded. They were a bit of a gimmick to start, playing friendlies against all different kinds of teams with their highlights being uploaded to YouTube. It was a bit of harmless fun with what was essentially Sunday league games with bits put on the internet for fans of Spencer FC to watch. But after a while support grew for it and continued to grow. Spencer took a bit of a gamble to see how far it would go, and the gamble more than paid off. Before the 2018-19 season, it was announced that The ‘Tags would be playing in the tenth tier of English football in the form of the Eastern Counties League Division One South. They won promotion to the Essex Senior Football League after their first season and find themselves there today, currently in second place 3 points behind league leaders Cockfosters. From what started as a Sunday League YouTube highlights compilation has turned into a team playing in the English Football pyramid, it’s been quite the 4 and a half years for them.
So why does any of this matter? In short, they’re completely changing the way non-league football is being viewed and followed. Bold statement, I know, but hear me out. Their YouTube channel currently has 523k subscribers, 472k followers on Instagram and 214.6k followers on Twitter. No non-league club, let alone in the 9th tier, comes remotely close to those numbers. To put it into context, that’s more followers on Twitter than Swindon Town, more Instagram followers than Swansea City, and more YouTube subscribers than Everton’s official account. There are personalities on YouTube who make Hashtag exclusive content and there’s many in the British YouTube scene who have a soft spot/admiration for them. All this support will get the attention of people and that’s being shown with fairly decent, consistent crowds showing up. This will bring more eyes to non-league football and more fans, and more importantly families, showing up to lower league games. Kind of a domino effect in a way, but a positive one. More fans means more eyes on lower league football which should mean more interest is taken in it, everyone wins. Non-league has never seen this kind of platform before. I’m not at all saying that Hashtag United are the biggest or most supported club in non-league, teams such as Wrexham, Hartlepool, Yeovil Town, Eastleigh and many others are much bigger clubs. But if Hashtag continue to succeed in the years to come then I honestly believe it will be fantastic in terms of the support for non-league football.
But like with absolutely anything you do in life, there is criticism for the club. Some of the most vocal critics say how what Hashtag are doing are “cringe”, be it the name, how they were founded or the excitement supporters/those associated with the club have the dreaded 6 letter word always finds a way to show up. But in today’s day and age, what even in cringe anymore? Is following your dreams through building your own team and living the dreams of millions of people around the world considered cringe? Is it to follow and have a passion for a team even though they may have not been founded in a traditional way? Could cringe be filming yourself at a game for the purpose of uploading it to YouTube? It seems the word is thrown around so much nowadays somebody’s hobby within football or life in general which dares go against a social norm is considered cringe. And to be honest, I hate it. As a society we preach being kind to one another but are quick to use somebody’s interest as a way to goad or insult them, and although it may be harmless in intent or just a little bit of banter it can make people feel bad and really unhappy. Just let people have interests and hobbies and leave them to it.
I’m not saying that Hashtag are immune to criticism because nobody is. If you have an issue with the way they became the name that they are and building on an already large audience, then that’s okay. I know some people will feel a bit uneasy about it which is fine. But hurling abuse at them online without an argument or insulting fans just because it’s Hashtag United won’t get you anywhere. It’s a bit like shouting at the moon, it’s not achieving anything and will eventually just end up annoying people around you. Rightfully, criticism came in their FA Cup games with the lack of social distancing from fans. I did voice my criticism for that on twitter, but made sure I said how it wasn’t anything personal and acknowledged it was a problem with many non league clubs. If it becomes too much of an issue that continues to happen then it won’t be long before all football is played behind closed doors, which would be absolutely catastrophic for so many teams. But don’t attack them because they’re a bit different to your traditional non-league team. Let people have their own interests and hobbies, if it’s legal then who are they hurting? It’s not cool, nor does it make you look big and clever, to belittle somebody or make them feel bad for having a hobby, it just makes you look a bit mean.
As I opened with, love them, loathe them, don’t particularly care about them, they’re not going away anytime soon. At the time of writing they’ve just been knocked out of the FA Cup Second qualifying round by Braintree Town losing on penalties, which isn’t a bad run for a team making their FA Cup debut. Only time will tell how far they’ll go, but FA Cup runs like this and their league performances will get people aboard the hype train. As a result more eyes are on non-league, it gets more of a following, and who knows how bright the future could be for many clubs.