2022 marks the year of the UEFA Women's Euro and the FIFA Men’s World Cup. All this week, VICE and GOAL will be collaborating to publish insightful, interesting stories from the world of football and fan culture, introducing VICE fans to GOAL and GOAL fans to VICE.
For better or worse, the name instinctively stands out. Down in the Isthmian League North Division, the eighth tier of English football, Hashtag United rub shoulders with longstanding, traditional clubs like Grays Athletic and Bury Town.
Co-founder Seb Carmichael-Brown is proud of the club’s unique identity but admits that many dislike it: “It’s one of the best and the worst things about us. A lot of people can never get past the name. They hear the name Hashtag United and they think, ‘What’s that nonsense?’ That’s fine, but it stands for where we’re from,” he says.
“Thankfully, almost everyone who’s taken the time to watch more of us, come to a game, or interact with us in any way, has understood that that’s just a name. We’re just like any other football club that’s been founded. We take it very seriously, but we have a lot of fun with it along the way.”
Winning over the doubters is a constant battle for a club born out of a YouTube channel. Started by Seb’s brother, YouTuber Spencer Carmichael-Brown (AKA Spencer FC), Hashtag started life as a team of friends playing exhibition matches in a FIFA-style league format and posting the footage online. Their ambitions grew as they amassed a huge audience of predominantly young, internet-savvy supporters.
“I think a modern-day football fan’s experience, and attachment to the sport, is very different to even when I was much younger,” Seb explains. “I think now it’s a lot about gaming. It’s a lot about social, online, digital. We’re a club that’s come from that world, from the very beginnings of Spencer’s own initial channel and his following.”
The numbers speak for themselves. Hashtag have 225,000 Twitter followers and 594,000 YouTube subscribers – more than the majority of Premier League teams, including Everton, West Ham United and Aston Villa, with 40 percent of that audience based outside the UK. Their match highlights consistently get more than 150,000 views. Their most-watched video – a penalty challenge – has been seen 2.3 million times.
After the original series came to an end with victory in front of 34,000 fans at the Wembley Cup, Spencer announced that Hashtag would be moving in a new, and very different, direction. Following long discussions with the FA, they joined the football pyramid in 2018, becoming a legitimate team.
“Hashtag just got under our skin and became part of our lives. It was a complete passion project. It’s had to evolve into a business to grow,” Seb says. “We’ve made our own football club, which now has all these people care about it, and we get all these amazing opportunities. Why not continue that? Why not take it as far as we can?”
Amid all the excitement and curiosity, there was scepticism too. The wider football community didn’t know how to react to the news that Hashtag United were now part of the Eastern Counties League and planning to rise higher. Some viewed them with suspicion; as outsiders and interlopers. Many wanted to see them fail.
“Some people were very pleased because they saw what that would mean. We were bringing record attendance numbers to our away games – more money at the bar, more money into their club. People watching online, increasing awareness of non-League [football] and celebrating what it is.
“Others didn’t want us anywhere near it. They didn’t understand it, so they didn’t like it by default. One by one, we think people started to warm to us as we came to play them, and they met us. They saw that we weren’t just a load of weirdos with a crazy name.”
Hashtag were determined to combat what they saw as common misconceptions – that they didn’t understand non-League football and weren’t committed to it. Many assumed that they would throw money at the team to bulldoze their way through the divisions. Instead, the owners have always preached the importance of sustainability.
“We just want to keep going. Yes, we’d like to win promotion after promotion, but is that realistic? No, probably not,” Seb says. “At some point we’ll find a level but until then we’re going to keep going and try to grow, but we’re going to do it in the right way.”
Hashtag are different to most non-League clubs, which rely almost exclusively on gate receipts. They’ve enjoyed the backing of high-profile sponsors like Adidas, Football Manager and Lucozade over the last few years. Supporters can also pay £5 a month for access to livestreamed games.
But after entering the pyramid, everything suddenly had to be scaled up. Better players were recruited, an experienced coaching team came in and a ground-sharing agreement was reached with Haringey Borough. They’ve since moved to Chadfields, and now the Len Salmon Stadium in Pitsea, while searching for a permanent home of their own.
Laying down roots and developing a physical fanbase has been one of Hashtag’s biggest challenges. Despite boasting fans from all over the world, their unusual origins – growing out of an online community rather than a real-life one – made them feel curiously placeless at first.
They decided to set up in Essex, where Spencer and Seb both live, but resisted the FA’s encouragement to include a geographical reference in the team’s name. “We’re never going to get people in America coming to the game every week,” says Seb, who doubles up as the club’s commercial director. “But we do also want to start growing the bricks and mortar side of it, which is why we want to find our own stadium, invest in the matchday experience and increase the number of people who come to our games. We would love to be a club that can get thousands every week.”
Hashtag’s first ever competitive match was a 3-2 defeat away to Little Oakley. Like many supporters, Alfie Howden had been watching Spencer’s YouTube videos for several years and was intrigued by this new venture. An eventful afternoon cemented the 22-year-old Londoner’s affection for the club.
“I decided I was going to provide a live audio commentary stream of the game for them – which I did, and people listened. The story of what followed has been told many times before,” he laughs. “It was quite warm, there was cheap beer, and I basically passed out about 70 minutes into the game. I came to, surrounded by the Hashtag United medical team.
“I ended up getting a lift back to London with the operations director Neil, which gave me an immediate connection to the club. I was able to pick his brains a bit and he got to know me. When I turned up to the first home game, I was introduced to Spencer as ‘that guy who collapsed’.”
Four years on, Alfie is now heavily involved with Hashtag as a volunteer, both as a PA announcer and steward. “I enjoy the responsibility of it and the connection it gives you to the club. I get my away days, to be a fan and the home games allow me to take that sense of responsibility and try to rebuild my reputation after whatever happened the weekend before. It’s good fun.”
Although Alfie still retains an affinity for his dad’s team, Liverpool, he supports Hashtag and says they feel far more relatable and accessible than the elite teams. “The connection between the fans and the players is just that bit stronger,” he explains. “I love Mo Salah, but the chances are I’m never going to meet him. I’m not going to bump into him at the local pub. I can support him, and I can celebrate his goals, but when [Hashtag player] Ross Gleed scores a banger, I can celebrate that goal with him.
“That’s one of the main reasons why I enjoy non-League football so much. You have a direct connection not just with the fans, like you have at any other level, but also with the players. You get to know them, they get to know you, and that’s quite fun.”
Adam Martin-Lawrence has had a similar experience. He went to Crystal Palace games growing up, but Hashtag have become his club. After watching some of their games on YouTube, he went to see them in person against Hackney Wick a couple of months into their first season.
“I instantly fell for the idea and really enjoyed it. I got chatting to Spencer’s mum and met Spencer that evening, which was really nice. I walked into that game with an attitude of ‘We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what they’re like and what’s going on.’
“To go from that to having a close-knit group of friends that I chat to on a regular basis, seeing this community grow through the seasons we’ve been here, and being a part of that, is special,” says Adam, who also volunteers.
For a new generation of supporters, whose love of football has often been shaped by social media and gaming, Hashtag has come along at exactly the right time. It’s been key to the club’s success so far, with popular series based around competitions to unearth a new player or eSports star and an emphasis on behind-the-scenes content and letting the players show their personalities.
“I think it’s definitely a trailblazer in the social media environment,” says Adam, who’s 28. “They’re using YouTube and Twitch to appeal to that younger audience. For clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, it’s harder to get into those spaces because it’s more about the original media that they’re used to.
“Hashtag is quite different in that we are a relatively young club. Most of it has been born out of social media. We’ve taken the traditional form of what it’s like to be a football club and put that digital spin on it that makes it more accessible.”
And, for a club at a relatively low tier, Hashtag’s global reach is unprecedented. Fans have travelled from as far away as Iceland, Brazil and Australia to watch games, and their online fanbase has only served to propel the expansion of the club.
“We’ve got over 500 footballers from the age of four upwards, boys and girls,” says Seb. “We’ve got our own youth facilities. More than 40 football teams represent Hashtag United. We’ve got our men’s team, who are the most popular and well known, but our women’s team play at an even higher level, in the fourth tier.”
A degree of wider awareness and acceptance came in the FA Cup first qualifying round two years ago, when Hashtag’s tie with Soham Town Rangers was broadcast live by the BBC. They’ve now been featured in Football Manager and influenced established clubs.
“A lot of traditional clubs collaborated with us, and continue to, and wanted to learn about how they could grow their own audiences online. A lot of them have done amazing jobs of that since. It wasn’t always the case,” recalls Seb. “The traditional, old-school football fan who’s going to pay for a season ticket is normally a slightly older demographic, but clubs are now waking up to the fact that you need to communicate to the younger demographic, who are going to become those guys, in very different ways.”
“It’s no longer just about traditional advertising. You now need to generate a relationship with them through things like FIFA. A lot of kids are picking their team based on who they like on FIFA as much as who their family support or where they live.”
Hashtag are part of that evolution, even as they try to build the match-going fanbase that has historically come first. For now, smaller crowds, usually around 200 or 300 for home games, help generate close ties between the club and its supporters, but continued progress will inevitably affect that dynamic. Whether it’s achievable, or even desirable, remains to be seen.
“The long-term objective is to have done enough stuff that makes people care about the club so that we can keep going. If we’re still going, using the same strategy, in 30, 40, 50 years, that will be success, whether we’re playing in the Isthmian League or the Championship,” says Seb. “Who knows what the future could hold? If you’d told me six years ago that we’d be doing this, I never would have believed you, and nobody else would have, either.”
Head to GOAL to read stories from VICE writers on: football, art and mental health matters for men, the Hollywood takeover of Wrexham, Arsenal’s retro merch boom and football fans and their tattoos.
Head to VICE for pieces by GOAL journalists on: the game’s unseen trafficking problem, the rise of the digital football fan, why grime artists are using footballing namechecks so often these days and how Côte d'Ivoire’s World Cup heroes brought a pause to civil war.