Hashtag United: possibly the most revolutionary and modern football club the sport has seen, typified perfectly by their name. Though they may not be as heralded, historical and humongous as the European heavyweights that dominate the game, they most definitely set precedent and serve as a metaphor for the technologically social climate we live in.
The club, initially set up as a group of friends playing a charity match to honour a childhood friend, was founded in 2016 by YouTube creator and personality: Spencer Owen. The next two years were spent playing friendlies and exhibition matches across seven countries against pro-football staff teams, fellow YouTube creators, sponsor/brand teams, non-league and Sunday-sides in an innovative league format devised by the founder himself. The team had points targets set for a group of games and if these targets were met, the team would be rewarded by ‘The Chairman’ and would progress to the next level. These games were filmed and uploaded to their YouTube channel, a channel which today has a following of close to half a million subscribers. In 2018, the club was granted a place amongst the football pyramid and entered the glorious world of ‘non-league football’ as they stepped into the National League System and joined the Eastern Senior League for the 2018/19 season; transitioning from exhibition team to a competitive club in the tenth tier of English football. In what was their first ever campaign as a non-league football team, under the stewardship of Jay Devereux, Hashtag won the league, winning twenty-six games from a possible thirty-six, drawing six and losing just four.
In their short existence, Hashtag have made considerable and quite simply astounding strides: their legitimacy as a football club was certified as former academy player Scott Pollock signed for League Two side Northampton Town where he made his competitive debut in the 2018/19 season, and the creation of their own Hashtag United E-sports team, in which three members of the club’s roster competed in the final 32 of the FIFA eWorld Cup, personifies the club as a genuine leader in truly valuing and appreciating the digital atmosphere that engulfs the modern era.
But it doesn’t stop there, on the 20th April 2020 the club announced their merger with one of Essex’s top women’s clubs, AFC Basildon, bringing Women’s football to the Tags. In light of Hashtag’s recent announcement declaring their evolution as a football entity, I felt it would only be right to profile two of their major components who will without doubt be key in their foray in to the women’s game: Manager Jason Stephens and striker Kelly Wealthall.
“It’s no genius formula here, it’s all about good timing”, is how Stephens described the merger. He explains how a mere twelve months ago when he joined AFC Basildon at the end of the season they had lost “pretty much every game” and had just been relegated from the third tier. AFC, who were at the time known as C&K Basildon, had some tough decisions to make; contemplating whether to merger with the suitors at the time: Aveley FC and Canvey Island, or stay with C&K. Stephens asked for time as he had faith in his own ability, telling them “trust me on the pitch, I’ll get it right”, allowing the club to “put a plan in place to make it a little bit more of an attractive product off the pitch”. So, twelve months later after beating Leyton Orient 2-0 in the last game of the season, the same question resurfaced: stick or twist? As fate would have it, “that following Saturday Spencer put out a post on Hashtag asking for female teams to contact him if they were interested in merging, could you believe it? The timing!” AFC had also been approached by Concord Rangers and Cheshunt Men’s who had offered “a very attractive package”, but a quick chain of events followed; Hashtag and Basildon gauging the other’s intentions, and despite one-hundred and thirteen other clubs contacting Owen, the only team to meet the founder was AFC Basildon: “very good timing, a bit of luck but at the same time, maybe just a little bit of foresight a year ago to believe in what you were doing”.
As they say, the rest is history. Or in Hashtag’s case, the rest is the future, a future which looks very exciting. Something special is brewing, Stephens told me that he has interviews lined up with the Guardian and even a group from Qatar, “we’ve got professional players offering support and wanting to get involved with the project”. “We’ve already got more followers on Hashtag than eight of the WSL (Women Super League) clubs, only Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have more”. There’s clearly huge expectations, so much so that Hashtag are “providing a three-year starter package”, a less than fifty percent contribution needed to operate the club. But if anyone understand this weight, it’s Stephens, he knows “just how potent the Hashtag brand is globally” and understands that he’s not just representing the Hashtag brand, but women’s football itself.
For an adventure as daunting and as thrilling as this, Hashtag should count themselves considerably fortunate; the sheer amount of pedigree Stephens and Wealthall bring with them, is quite simply immense. They boast stunning CVs: Wealthall, whilst being just nineteen, having started out playing for her local Sunday League boys team, Wickford Town, has over a decade of experience in the game. She joined West Ham at the age of eight after impressing in the Under 10’s trials, progressing through the junior academies, eventually reaching the first team at the age of sixteen, finishing her last season with the club as the team’s top goal scorer. She then joined a football college, Barking Abbey, where she studied her A-Levels and BTECs whilst representing both Barking and England Colleges (ECFA), travelling Las Vegas, Memphis and Madrid. Upon completion of her studies and as a result of injury, she joined AFC Basildon where now, she spearheads the team into their first season as Hashtag United Women. So many different groups and sets of players she’s combined with: something that she categorically states as a crucial component to her success, “I definitely say it’s made me the player I am today”. Stephens, as he puts it, has “always been involved in football”. In the early 2000s he worked with Charlton Athletics’ Academy working on their community programmes, establishing one-hundred and fifty satellite centres throughout the South-East of England, he then moved to Brazil in 2005 teaching Brazilian children at Sao Paulo Academy English and futsal, before working in the United States as a Strength and Conditioning coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Portland Timbers. He also headed the Inter Milan Academy for the Under 17’s before starting his own street soccer business working with Manchester United and Qatar, until he was headhunted as Technical Director for the Cook Island’s Football Association. Vast experience and incredibly well-travelled, but the best thing about their glittering CVs? Their experiences in the game intertwine. Stephen coached Wealthall at West Ham Under 16’s and then also at Barking Abbey, before convincing her to join Basildon too.
It gets even better, experience is nothing without results, and luckily enough for Hashtag, Stephens and Wealthall back up their talk with a proven track record of success. During their time working together, the pair have won a combined eight trophies, with the Under 16’s at West Ham winning four sets of silverware only to move to Barking Abbey and repeat the exact same feat yet again. Maybe Wealthall is the cherry on top of the icing on the cake, she tells me her best ever performance was the National Final for Barking Abbey against huge rivals Oaklands where not only did she net a hat-trick and “get to keep the ball and got player of the match”, she bagged the winner with five minutes to go.
It would be an extreme disservice to these two fantastically talented characters to say that Hashtag United Women are in ‘good hands’; extremely experienced, potent in their performance and brilliantly bonded, but above all, they’re dazzlingly driven. Wealthall understands that maximising this opportunity “depends on how we use this to our advantage, getting all this behind us” as Stephens rounds off faultlessly stating, “we want to be a club that is sustainable in the community in fifty years time, because there’s too many women and girls clubs that appear and disappear in a short space of time so we want to be an integral part of that community lifespan over a period of time”.
By Aman Ahmed.