There has been little good news to be had for clubs outside of the top flight in England over the past couple of years, and there is no shortage of teams who may not return to their former glory, or may exist at all in a year’s time––Bury, Wigan and Stockport County are just a few clubs that spring to mind.
The fallout of the pandemic has only brought clubs further to the brink as the Government has announced that plans to introduce football fans back into stadiums has been delayed. This is disastrous for those in the English Football League and non-league alike, as many of these clubs need the money from ticket sales in order to keep the lights on.
The pandemic itself is not entirely to blame for the state of lower league football, there has been a growing divide between the ‘elite’ and smaller, community-based clubs for many years, as financial inequalities in the game have skyrocketed.
While there are plenty of concerns to be had, and plenty of problems to tackle if we are to protect many historic clubs who bring so much joy and variety to the game, it is not all doom and gloom, as Hashtag United’s recent success in the FA Cup reminds us.
Hashtag United, a ‘Youtube team’ which began as a pet project of Youtuber Spencer FC, was initially made up of Spencer Owen’s friends from school and university. They filmed their games, mostly exhibition matches, and uploaded them to Youtube, where thereafter the club soon gained a large following of avid watchers.
The club may have only been around for four years, but they have since entered the English football league pyramid, playing in the Essex Senior League, and, this season, have managed to win their first round qualifier in the FA Cup.
Hashtag prevailed in their game against Soham Town Rangers, winning the match 4-2 on penalties after a goal from Jesse Waller Lassen levelled the game at 1-1 for United, taking the match into a tiebreaker.
While no-one expects the team to become the giant-slayers of this year’s tournament––they still have a long, long way to go before they would even face a giant––the continued growth of the club tells us there is still room for success to be had for smaller teams in England, which is not necessarily dependent on moving up the leagues. Although that certainly helps.
It’s not only the recognition the team have gained online which signals a new opportunity for the sustainability of non-league football, but the club’s success has also provided aspiring footballers a chance at living out their dream.
The club have produced two Academy series’, a process to find talented players to join the club, which both amassed thousands of applicants. The trials were watched by thousands of others on their Youtube channel, giving the applicants, even if they were not the eventual winners, a huge platform to show their talent.
The winner of the first Academy series, Scott Pollock, has since gone on to sign a professional contract with Northampton Town.
The club does not stop there.
Hashtag United also boast a youth and development team, an esports team and a women’s team, who play in the FA Women’s National League, the fourth division of women’s football.
The club are not the only Youtube football team who have gained popularity over the last few years, others include Palmers FC and SE Dons, but Hashtag United are certainly the biggest success story.
These clubs may have big ambitions for the future of their clubs, which may or may not be achieved, but they have undoubtedly brought new life and interest in lower and non-league football which, inevitability, can only be a positive thing for the state of the game and something to be hopeful about.