(ALL SMILES: Hashtag United players are embracing a new way to grow a football club led by founder Spencer Owen. PICTURE: Ben Prior-Wandesforde)
By Hugo Varley
As of Friday afternoon, almost 250,000 people had watched YouTube highlights of last weekend’s Eastern Counties Division One South match between Coggeshall United and Hashtag United. For any other club in Non-League these viewing figures would seem like an extraordinary anomaly, but for Hashtag United it’s just business as usual.
The North London-based club, who entered the Non-League pyramid at Step 6 this season, were founded by YouTuber Spencer Owen in 2016 and boast a social media following which rivals many of the top teams in the world.
With over 400,000 subscribers on YouTube, more than European giants Tottenham Hotspur, Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan, Hashtag are promoting a unique way of following a football team.
The club post regular behind-the-scenes clips on social media throughout the week, while each match is documented through a stylish video, featuring highlights, footage from inside the changing rooms and interviews with players and coaches.
“We are trying to do something that has never been done before,” Owen told The NLP.
“Before this season we were playing exhibition matches, which was great fun but we really wanted to push the club forward. We then heard about the league restructure last year and realised it presented a great opportunity for us to enter Non-League.”
Asked why Hashtag have managed to cultivate such a strong online support base, Owen admits it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons.
“Part of the appeal is that in an age where the top professional footballers are seen as increasingly out of touch, fans find our content more engaging because it is about people like themselves.”
The emergence of Hashtag in Non-League football has been met with scepticism in certain quarters, but the club’s founder is keen to address a number of misconceptions.
“We know we are not going to get everyone on side, but I hope that as time goes by we will be able to win over more people.
“For starters, I think some people are put off immediately by our name because they may think it makes us sound a bit like a franchise. But the reason for the name is because the club has been entirely built on social media and without it, we wouldn’t be here.
“A few people had us down as one of the favourites for promotion this season, but they didn’t know that we don’t have a playing budget because we have to invest money into making sure our online content is top quality.
“In many ways we make life hard for ourselves because all the other clubs in the division are able to see our tactics. What we want to do is help to get more people into Non-League football.
“We currently have lots of young followers from all around the world, and it is great they now know all about the Eastern Counties League.”
Hashtag’s determination to embrace their arrival into Non-League football was demonstrated by the shrewd appointment of experienced former East Thurrock assistant Jay Devereux as manager.
Devereux, who spent seven seasons working under Rocks boss John Coventry, admitted he was daunted by his new job at first.
“Even after researching the club, I had absolutely no idea just how big this project was,” said the Hashtag boss.
“I knew Spencer because he filmed a documentary at East Thurrock a few years ago so I ran a few training sessions for him last year to help evaluate the talent of the squad.
“I had initial doubts about taking the job because it was at a much lower level than where I had been coaching. However, after joining the team on their tour of Scotland in April I was blown away by the following they had.
“After each match we get hundreds of comments on social media from fans; it brings a level of scrutiny I have never experienced before.”
Devereux explains he was impressed by the level-headed approach Owen is taking in his running of the club.
He says: “Spencer told me the aim of the club for now is just to be sustainable. That was refreshing because new clubs can recklessly spend money in an attempt to achieve immediate success, ending up in long-term financial trouble.
“All I would ask is for people to come down and see what we are all about. I think they will be pleasantly surprised by what they see.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday for £1.50 in all good newsagents and supermarkets