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Hashtag United have conquered YouTube and non-league is next: behind the scenes of a phenomenon

Hashtag United
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The format helps Smythe and his team tell the stories of the leading characters in the Hashtag cast, and FFT spots one of them near the pitch filming a selfie video before the game.

Two years ago, Jemel Akeem decided to become a full-time YouTuber after the success of lads channel JemelOneFive, and joined Hashtag after finishing third in a series of trials aimed at unearthing new talent. “I live in Bristol and spent three hours on a bus getting here,” says the 26-year-old. “I have a five-year-old daughter so can’t play every week, but I want to play as much as I can.”

The reason for his dedication – aside from a love of the game – is the online exposure from being a Hashtag player. “After the trials, I got 15-20,000 new followers on Instagram and YouTube,” he says. Those numbers have since led to collaborations with New Balance, EA Sports and nutrition brand Healthspan Elite on various projects.

But while online fame and life in front of the camera is now second nature for Akeem, club captain Harrison is still getting his head around Hashtag’s popularity. “I’m just a 33-year-old bloke who works in insurance,” he chuckles. “After our games we get fans coming up asking us to sign autographs and have pictures with them, it’s crazy.”

Reputation on the line

It’s also a new world for Jay Devereux, who was named the club’s first ever gaffer in the summer after spending last term as assistant manager of National League South outfit East Thurrock United. “I’m putting my reputation on the line because I’m always on camera and always have a microphone attached to me,” he admits. “But the guys are professional. I’ve almost forgotten they’re there, and I’ll still speak to the players as I would if I wasn’t being filmed.”

Last season, team talks were often shot more than once to ensure Hashtag’s content team captured the perfect angle, but now the club are a fully fledged team, nothing is scripted.

“The content came first – everything waited for the cameras,” says Smythe. “But I assured Jay when we appointed him that he and the team were the priority now. If the camera crew aren’t ready to film his pre-match team talk, that’s our fault.”

Devereux planned to take time out of the game to spend time with his family after leaving his last post in April. But he was convinced to return after speaking to Owen, who he’s known since the pair started filming non-league matches eight years ago. “I liked his ideas in terms of making the club sustainable,” he explains. “If he’d said he wanted to reach the Premier League in 10 years, I wouldn’t have gone for it.”

Hashtag’s switch from Sunday League to a semi-professional outfit is a delicate process. Owen has assumed commentary duties rather than playing, after admitting the step up was too much for his limited talents, while several players with non-league experience have been drafted in to bolster the squad. But he says it was important the bulk of the original side made the move from YouTube.

“We must continue the narrative; we can’t change a team overnight but equally we don’t want to get pumped every week,” he says. Their recruitment process also has certain caveats. “The personality side of things has to work. I’m not saying you have to have a big social media following to play for us, but the players must be comfortable with the way we work because our online audience sustains us.”

That’s part of the reason why Owen felt Devereux was the man for the job. “He knows non-league inside out but he’s also comfortable on camera. That isn’t a prerequisite for being a good boss but it’s an important part of what we do. He gets it and that’s vital.”

FFT wonders if Hashtag United will be a target for sides determined not to be turned over by a team named after a social media symbol. “I think we’re definitely a scalp in this division,” says gaffer Devereux. “Some people think we’re a moneybags club, which is wrong, and some teams will laugh at us because of our model, but there’s decent players in the squad and we’re a serious club.”

But are they actually any good? “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the squad,” enthuses Devereux. “And there are no egos, even though some of them have big social media followings. What they lack is game know-how, and they’ll need it against more organised teams who’ve been playing semi-pro football for years.”

Progress in 2018/19

Their first game – away to Little Oakley three days earlier – ended in a 3-2 loss, but tonight’s match offers the chance for redemption. In the stands, 156 fans have assembled, and some soon spot the face of the club, Owen, and sneak a crafty picture or ask him for a selfie. He’s used to it by now.

“This isn’t a boast, but two years ago I was at this Adidas event with Gareth Bale and a group of kids ran straight past him and hugged me – I was embarrassed,” he reveals. While many here are schoolchildren, there are also jersey-wearing Hashtag supporters in their early-20s. Some of them even display the hashtag hand symbol, created by Owen on YouTube, to show their support.

The standard of football is a world away from the Premier League offerings served up to the same fans every weekend. Passes pick out the ball boys as often as team-mates and both goalkeepers regularly fumble tame shots. But the crowd don’t care and Hashtag break the deadlock after 14 minutes through Harry Honesty, a pacy striker who spent last season at East Thurrock.

The lead lasts for eight minutes and the visitors come on strong in the second half, hitting the woodwork and squandering several good opportunities. But Hashtag United hold on and pick up the first point of their embryonic existence.

After the game, the club’s content staff hastily erect an advertising backdrop featuring Adidas and Football Manager logos, and interview goalscorer Honesty. The race is then on to edit their mass of footage and upload it to YouTube in a couple of days. It’s a challenge that’s as difficult as the one they face on the pitch. “We used to have a couple of weeks to turn videos around; now it’s a matter of days as we‘ve got one or two games per week,” says Smythe.

Their first episode of the season has had 300,000 hits and counting, but they don’t take their fans for granted. Players spend time chatting to them like pals down the pub and thank them for their support, while Owen holds court with two teenage supporters in the stand.

It’s a refreshingly human approach in contrast to the club-customer experience of top-flight football and it’s that, more than anything else, that explains Hashtag’s appeal to the online masses and their tribal matchday following. “Our fans are part of our storyline,” says Smythe. “Traditional clubs try to engage an existing fanbase with content, but without our content and audience, we’d die.”

They might not be the last to teleport from YouTube to non-league, either. “There are other YouTube teams with big online followings and backing from major brands,” reveals Owen. “If we’re successful I’d be surprised if other clubs don’t try to do the same thing.”

If they were to secure successive promotions, Hashtag United could be a Premier League club in just nine years. So should the big boys be worried? “Who knows how far we can go?” says Owen. “I would never have said we’d sell 34,000 tickets at Wembley or tour America. Bear in mind, most of the team is made up of me and my brother’s mates. Sharing this crazy experience with them is incredible, we’re all having an amazing time and hopefully it continues.”

They’re living the dream, and their fans are living it with them.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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