Despite FA Cup loss, Hashtag United are going places
Coventry United 4 Hashtag United 0
Hashtag United's rapid rise represents one of women's football's most unusual feel-good stories, from their chairman hitting send on a Tweet just under three years ago, to reaching the fourth round of the Women's FA Cup on Sunday and looking on course for promotion.
Having been inspired to financially support women's football by England's run to the 2019 World Cup semi-finals, the club's founder, YouTuber Spencer Owen, took to social media in March 2020 to invite any local women's teams to reach out if they were interested in a merger with his existing men's club.
It soon transpired that neighbouring AFC Basildon's women's team were in need of assistance. A rebrand occurred and Hashtag United Women were born. They now find themselves flying high, unbeaten, at the top of their league, the National League Division One South East, which is the fourth tier of the women's pyramid, where they are outperforming several bigger clubs.
"I still pinch myself every day that we're in a league with Norwich City, AFC Wimbledon and QPR, and we're actually above them. That's something that I think is so exciting about women's football, almost the re-imagining of the football status quo," Owen tells Telegraph Sport.
"One of the reasons I got interested in women's football is I realised we could establish ourselves as a force in women's football quicker than we could in men's, because there are still a lot of big professional teams not backing it properly. There's so much money at the top of men's football, when you've got Hashtag United, run by a YouTuber, beating you regularly, I'd be embarrassed. I say that as a challenge to the rest of the teams: pull your finger out, because we're coming for you if you don't, and we shouldn't be able to."
They travelled to Coventry United of the Championship, two divisions higher than them, on Sunday, and speaking ahead of the match, Owen added: "It's the biggest game in our history, not just for our women's team, but across the board. It's an incredible feat."
The contest proved a step too far for the underdogs, with the sending off of their goalkeeper, Jamie-Lee Bamford, just after the half-hour mark, hindering their chances in a 4-0 loss. Yet, even as they exited the cup under blue winter skies at Butts Park Arena, it was clear this was a club going places.
Hashtag streamed the match live on their YouTube channel, with the stream was viewed more than 20,000 times during the game.
And yet just three seasons ago they didn't even have a place in the women's pyramid, until Owen sent out a Tweet offering support to any women's club whom they could help.
"We had a massive response to that tweet from lots of clubs," he added. "One thing I found out, which is not at all uncommon, is that the girls were actually paying to play at the fourth tier, which when you compare it to the men is just ridiculous, right? It didn't seem right to me. I was adamant that we could come in and offer some support straight away. It was one of the best decisions I ever made."
Yes it’s tough to take, but we’ll be back training Tuesday, chasing this league/county cup double 🏆🏆
Thanks for all your support 💛💙#UPTHETAGS https://t.co/2KZiNfOCcZ pic.twitter.com/M4egNDL7fv
— Hashtag United FC Women (@hashtagutdwomen) January 29, 2023
The Essex club have earned £31,750 from their cup run this term. That's a cash injection which Owen says "will be used to sustain the club over a long period of time". Their run ended at a Coventry side who scored through Ellen Jones on the rebound and Mary McAteer's strike before Bamford was rushing out of her area and clattering into Jones. Alanah Mann's looping long-range strike made it 3-0 before Freya Thomas's late fourth.
"Fair play to them, they've got some really good players, a couple who have got good careers ahead of them as they progress, and they gave a good account of themselves," said Coventry United head coach Lee Burch of Hashtag. Burch may well have been referring to the visitors' impressive striker Sammy Rowland, who had scored 11 goals across four ties in the cup so far this season, netting 27 goals in all competitions in total in this campaign. She went closest for the away side, being denied only by a super Jodie Whiteman save.
There will, nonetheless, be fourth-tier representation in Monday's fifth-round draw because Cardiff City pulled off a surprise 4-1 win at Burnley of the third tier. Meanwhile second-tier team Birmingham City, who won the cup in 2012, produced a big shock as they won 1-0 away at Everton, who are fifth in the Women's Super League. Elsewhere, a Sam Kerr hat-trick gave holders Chelsea a 3-2 win at home to Liverpool, while last year's finalists Manchester City enjoyed a hat-trick from Bunny Shaw as they raced to 7-0 win over Sheffield United.
Coventry United (4-2-3-1): Whiteman 6; Mann 7, Hoare 5 (Whipp 6, 45), Bartle 6, Rabjohn 7; Thomas 6 (Jhamat 6, 77), Wiseman 6; McAteer 7, Morris 6 (Goodwin 6, 59), Jones 7 (Cross 6, 58 (Orthodoxou 5, 85)); Ryan-Doyle 7 (Butler 6, 77)
Subs not used: Newborough, Butler, Dudley-Jones, Scofield
Yellow cards: Morris
Hashtag United (4-3-3): Bamford 5; Adams 5 (Frazzoni 6, 67), Nutman 6, Gillard 6, Apindia 7; Griffiths 6 (Adamson 7, 45), Kelly 6 (Garwood 6, 73), West 6; Abrehart 6 (Hale 7 (gk) 36), Rowland 7, Samways 6
Subs not used: Barker
Red cards: Bamford
Referee: Adriana Bucur (London)