By Aman Ahmed

This article originally appeared on SLN – The home of Southern non-league football.

Hashtag United: possibly the most revolutionary and modern football club the sport has ever seen. Though they may not be as heralded, historical and humongous as the European heavyweights that dominate the game, they’ve 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 personality Spencer Owen. The first two years of the club’s history were spent playing friendlies and exhibition matches across seven countries against professional clubs’ staff teams, fellow YouTube creators, teams made up of staff from sponsors and brands, and other non-league and grassroots sides in an innovative league format devised by the founder himself. The team had a points target set for a group of games and if this target was met, they would be rewarded by ‘The Chairman’ and would progress to the next level.

Their games were filmed and uploaded to the Hashtag United 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 an exhibition team to a competitive club in the tenth tier of English football. In their first ever campaign as a non-league side and under the stewardship of Jay Devereux, Hashtag won the league, winning 26 games from a possible 36, drawing six and losing just four.

In their short existence, Hashtag has made considerable and quite simply astounding strides: their legitimacy as a football club was certified when former academy player Scott Pollock signed for League Two side Northampton Town where he made his competitive debut in the 2018/19 season, whilst 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, in April 2020 the club announced their merger with one of Essex’s top women’s clubs, AFC Basildon, officially bringing women’s football to ‘The Tags’. In light of this recent announcement, I felt it would only be right to profile two of the major components who will 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,” said Stephens when quizzed about the merger.

He explained how a mere twelve months ago when he joined AFC Basildon they had lost “pretty much every game” that season 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 merge with the suitors at the time, Aveley FC and Canvey Island, or to stay with C&K. Stephens asked for time as he had faith in his own ability, and with the club’s directors agreeing to do so, this allowed the club to put a plan in place to create 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, the following Saturday a message was posted on Hashtag United’s official social channels, asking for female teams to contact him if they were interested in merging. At the time, AFC had also been approached by Concord Rangers and Cheshunt Men’s who had both offered very attractive packages, but a quick chain of events followed. Hashtag and Basildon met to listen to the other’s intentions, and despite 113 other clubs contacting United founder Owen, the only team to meet with him was AFC Basildon.

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. He added: “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 with the merger, so much so that Hashtag are providing a three-year starter package, a financial contribution worth almost 50% to help to operate the club. But if anyone understands this weight, it’s Stephens. He knows 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. Wealthall, whilst being just 19, 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, and progressed through the junior academies before eventually reaching the first team at the age of 16, 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 whilst representing both Barking and England Colleges (ECFA), the latter of which involved her travelling to 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 and will be play a key part in their first season as Hashtag United Women. As for Stephens, he has “always been involved in football.” In the early 2000s he worked with Charlton Athletic’s Academy where he established 150 satellite centres throughout south east England, before moving to Brazil in 2005 to teach Brazilian children at Sao Paulo’s Academy. Spells in the United States working as a strength and conditioning coach for the San Francisco 49ers and Portland Timbers followed this, whilst in recent years, he also worked for Inter Milan, started his own street soccer business which has links with Manchester United, and overseen the Cook Islands Football Association as its technical director. Whilst their experiences in the game are polar opposite, they do actually intertwine. Stephen coached Wealthall at West Ham’s Under 16’s side, followed by a spell at Barking Abbey, before convincing her to join Basildon too.

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, before the move to Barking Abbey saw them repeat the same feat. Maybe Wealthall is the cherry on top of cake. She tells me her best ever performance was the National Final for Barking Abbey against huge rivals Oaklands, where she netted a hat-trick including the winning goal with five minutes to go.

It would be an extreme disservice to these two fantastically talented characters to simply say that Hashtag United Women are in ‘good hands’. They’re extremely experienced, potent in their performance and brilliantly bonded, but above all, they’re dazzlingly driven. Signalling their ambition, Stephens concluded: “We want to be a club that is sustainable in the community in 50 years’ time, because there are too many women and girl’s 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 longer period of time”.

This article originally appeared on SLN – The home of Southern non-league football.