Sunday 15 March 2020

They Don't Like It Up Them - Hashtag United FC Vs Hadley FC, Essex Senior League, Chadfields (19/02/20)

As car parks at non league grounds go, the one at Chadfields is a bit of a shocker, I’m not sure it’s even legal. The narrow unlit drive up the side of the clubhouse, leading to the spaces behind, feels fraught with danger. The main car park at the front is already full, I’m late on account of a police roadblock, stopping me from getting here the way I wanted, sending me instead on a circuitous tour of the towns that litter the banks of this part of the Thames estuary.

My detour does allow me at least to get a good view of the nearby docks, all lit up like a Christmas tree, crane after crane covered in bright white lights, the ships that they service and a whole slew of slowly turning wind turbines. As I wind and weave through the dark Essex countryside, eventually the floodlights come into view, through the cast iron gates, I arrive to find Tom, who is back to his loitering ways, but not before I’m scared half to death by the ghoulish face of, not my compadre, but part of a fairground ride in the neighbouring plot.

The words of Journey’s Don't Stop Believing drift over the breeze block wall that separates us and the ground beyond. Not even here five minutes and we catch a glimpse of the baseball cap wearing reason for us being in this corner of Essex on a wet Wednesday evening. Spencer Brown of Spencer FC, YouTube royalty and co founder of what might be the most divisive football club in recent memory, Hashtag United FC (HU)

For the second weekend in a row, the UK has been battered by a storm so powerful, they felt it worthwhile giving it a name, although Dennis hardly strikes fear into the hearts of men. A brief break in the atrocious weather, might just mean we will get a game tonight, with so many having fallen by the wayside already today.

I’m sure it’s no accident that Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer and the opening line ‘Tommy used to work on the docks’, is the song playing next, as the lady from inside her modestly sized tea bar is setting up. Deep into a game of head tennis, four kids arch their necks standing behind a HU branded head tennis table. Much like a ping pong table, but with sloped edges, that has us both intrigued. “Never seen one of them before” says Tom, with all the amazement of a first time visitor to Jurassic Park.

Chadfields most definitely falls into the 'a bit worn out' column, but in the best possible way, crumbling, a bit shabby and full of character. Tom reckons since our last visit, long before HU were even an idea in a brainstorming meeting, it's been a bit “tidied up”. Maybe it's the influence of the much vied and followed lodgers, and he is not wrong. There is very little sign though to suggest HU, for this season at least, are calling it home. It’s all very black and white, the colours of the the landlords Tilbury FC. Other than the head tennis table, there is a large blue hashtag painted somewhat incongruously on the wall behind one goal, and that's about it.

This close to the mouth of the Thames I imagine it's always a bit blustery, but thankfully it's not raining. It feels like it's been raining non stop for weeks, so the fact that it's not, currently, it's somewhat of a blessing that it has eased off for now. Concern about such things though, are reserved for people of a certain age, which sadly Tom and I are most certainly are, but is of little concern though to the myriad of kids here and I’m not just talking about one or two dragged here by their Dad’s, in fact they might just outnumber the adults. Many of whom are displaying a fair bit of HU merchandise. “Careful in your studs' ' shouts one nervous parent, as a young boy, too young to understand the peril he is in, bombs about on concrete in football boots.

Youth it seems is very much the theme, and the voice over the PA is chirpy and young, and clearly has none of the concerns of a father of two, with a bad back, and a dodgy knee. He is warm and high spirited, welcoming everyone, but then curiously reminds us all to “stay off the pitch at all times”. The dark underbelly internet inspired semi professional football rearing its ugly face? With their level of popularity and millions of online views, comes a fanbase who like a pitch invasion?

Did I mention by the way, that there are loads of kids here?

The warm up of the visiting team Hadley FC (HFC) is far louder and far more vigorous than that of the home side. The top of the table clash, 4th Vs 3rd is as one HFC coach put it, going to “be a tough one”, however they did “beat” HU “at home”, so it’s a hard one to call.

Standing beside the head tennis table, the reason for the warning about going on the pitch becomes clear, a local band of mini Ultras, have just broken out their HU sticker covered drum and horn, slung around the neck of one. Huddled around the black cage that substitutes for a tunnel here, the kids, let me emphasise again, who there are loads of, have swarmed like bees, many rocking the HU hand gesture to the multitude of cameras.

“Kick off now only six minutes away” announces the ever increasing ebullient voice of the PA, he nearly blew a casket when reading out the “Hashtag starting eleven”. The mums of tonight's mascots whoop and holler from the first floor seating in the main stand, set back from the pitch, which the tunnel emanates from the base of, a bit like something from a safari park, when the name of the local football team they are representing is read out.

When the players emerge, the kids still waiting steadfast, push themselves even more against the black chainlinks of the cage, to get that little bit closer to their favorite player. The players inside are somewhat oblivious, they are far too busy exchanging encouraging inspirational slogans like “hungry, hungry” or in the case of the one away player, repeating, “come on Hadley, come on Hadley”.

As the referee prepares to kick off on what is a slightly agricultural looking pitch, not only am I amazed that the game is actually happening, but that Tom could not be further from the truth with his prediction that there was only going to be around “seven” people here tonight.

With the ends decided, the game underway, the kids with the drum have now taken up position behind the goal, where a large net prevents the wayward balls whacking them or clearing the monochrome wall, into nomansland beyond, and are quick to beat a rhythm out on their drum “ohh Hashtag United”, followed by a random blast of the horn.

The action on the pitch is quick to get started also.“Where are we?” asks one HFC defender, after an excellent HU cross field pass has dissected them, finding its intended target, his superb first touch sees him away, however the HFC keeper is on his toes and is there to meet him. Smothering the ball, he then loses it, managing to smother the loose ball for a second time, but getting hurt in the process, resulting in a long break as the prone keeper is attended to.

Another long stoppage, this time due to an injury to a HU players, gives the HFC fans at the far end of the long covered terrace down one side of the pitch, a chance to break into song, which the kids are quick to pounce on, “who are ya?, who are ya?” they ask. Tom laughing to himself, suggests they are about “the most unthreatening Ultras ever”. They might be young, and might not have the menace of a face covered German with a flare, but they are loud.

When play resumes, it’s clear HFC have a game plan, and set their stall out very early, physicality. A few early robust challenges have the home players already annoyed. The HFC fans offer up another song, but for now they're being outshone by the constant singing of the home supporters, who have a whole playlist of songs, “Oh hashtag we love you”, “we’re gonna win the league” and “hello, hello, we are the Hashtag boys” and boys they very much are. The fish and chip eating away supporter next to us mind, who has broken away from the main pack is also loud, but a lot less coherent.

Thirteen minutes gone and a glancing header from the blond HU number 10, sees them go in front. His celebration, a homage of the Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Erling HÃ¥land from the night before. Crossed legged sitting on the floor, eyes closed, thumbs and index fingers pressed together, he takes a brief moment of contemplation, before being mobbed and I'm sure that must be some kind of record. In less than twenty four hours, something that happened at the very pinnacle, has already filtered down to almost the base of the pyramid. “You're not singing anymore” chant the kids, leaping on the grief of the travelling fans, just like any fan should do, regardless of age, in no time at all.

HFC are really not at the races and their bench is livid, so is fish and chip man, shouting angrily with a mouth half full of hake, when HU are awarded a free kick, “ref you're having a laugh”, which sees the home team enough space for a glancing header, but this time it hits a teammate and not the back of the net. HFC need to liven up fast and it takes them nearly twenty minutes to show their first real bit of attacking intent. An excellent ball up the right channel, sends one wide player on his way, the move breaks down, but it was something. For a moment it looked like being over for them, before it
had even begun.

The tackles continue to fly in, mostly by the visiting team, and when the inevitable blast of the referees whistle that follows comes, it does not go down well with fish and chip man at all, “no fucking way ref”. The kids behind the goal are a lot more sanguine and are serenading their goal scorer “are you Haland in disguise?”, breaking from their revelry to cheer on Halands fellow forward darting into the box, “come on Harry''. Again the HFC keeper is quick off this line, but Harry reaches the ball first and the HFC keeper is unable to slow down, his momentum sending him clattering into the front man, taking him out, and giving the referee no other option but to point at the spot.

“Spanked that” gasps Tom, as HU Haland leathers the ball into the top left hand corner and instead of repeating his previous celebration, he’s straight off towards the arms of bounding fans behind the goal, who again are quick to pipe up with another new song, “Hashtags on fire, you’re defense is terrified”.

A late tackle this time on a HFC player and it's their fans turn to ask for a foul, instead of being appalled at one being awarded against them. The rain has reared its head, but it doesn't dampen the home fans, who increasingly goad the small pocket of HFC supporters, “it's all gone quiet over there”. Talking to a member of the HU club staff, he tells me HFC “bullied us” in the reverse fixture earlier this season, admitting that HFC are the “only team” to have “outplayed” them “this season”. Tonight I’m not sure HFC have even had a shot on target yet, so are clearly nowhere near their best, but are still very much committed to a spot of roughhousing..

Fish and chip man having finished his fish and chips, is no less angry, whatever was in the white paper has not left him in any better of a mood. “Fucking get up” is quickly becoming his catchphrase, after a HU player goes down, and he’s not having any of it. However when the tables are turned, and one of his players hits the deck in similar circumstances, he is surprisingly quiet. Much to the amusement of the people behind him, “get up, get up” they shout, I say shout, they are too busy laughing their heads off. “They enjoyed that” says Tom grinning.

“We've got to want it” demands one HFC player, in an attempt to rally his teammates, who with the half rapidly coming to a conclusion, have been second best. “Skin him, skin him” screams one HFC fan with a player flying down the byline, but he’s unable to completely shake his marker, only winning a corner. At the moment the chants of the away fans are about as rare as their sides attacks, “come on Hadley, come on Hadley”.

Surrounded by almost all twenty two players, it's hard to make out the referee at the centre of the melee, his decision to award HU a free kick has gone down like a lead balloon with HFC and HU don't understand how there isn't at least a booking. The kids in the main stand think he should get a red, “get him off, get him off” but it's not even a yellow. “Ref sort it out” screams fish and chip man, prompting Tom to go a little bit Carry On through pursed lips, “oh angry”.

The final minutes of the half are a stop start, stop start mess, one tit for tat lunging tackle after another. One HFC player hurdles a couple before the referee pulls it back, the accosted visiting midfielder not best pleased with the treatment he’s getting, and although the final free kick is over, it can maybe at least be considered an attempt on goal. They register one more, the last of the half, the referee playing advantage, but again the final shot is over, the kids behind the goal asking, “how wide you want the goal?”.

The PA has been affected by a gremlin during the first half, so the voice of the young man manning it, is far from clear, however the kids that line the front row of the main stand make up for it, cheering off the teams, before Sweet Home Alabama drowns them out. Proving it’s not all about the youth here, and there is something for the Dad’s and Mum’s too. Tom is soon back with some quite fantastic chips which I pinch a few of, all while an HFC substitute pretends he is keeping warm and doing his required stretches, but is actually on his phone.

In Tom’s absence, I was joined by another Tom, a Tom we’ve met before. Tom who in his small sports holdall, has all manner of flags, scarves and banners, which in no time at all he has fastened to the fence near us, as the HFC fans relocate for the new half. From his head, and not his bag, he reels all sorts of fun facts, worthy of the back of any Penguin, about HFC’s current form and having finished his chips, Tom goes all boxing fan on me, when he tells me he “loves this song” as Neil Diamond starts to play.

It's a high pitched welcome back for the teams. The shouts of the home keeper are far more post puberty, “come on yellows, win the ball back” and once the match is back underway, it’s a lightning
start not by the home side as you might expect, but the away one, who come out like a new team.

A minute on the clock and one of their players has beaten the offside trap, “he’s on, he’s on” shouts one of the HFC fans behind us, but the ball just won't fall right for the advancing player and in the end he hooks his effort right at the keeper. “Great chance Bricks” applauds one of the few, but very vocal HFC supporters.

HFC almost scupper their strong start when their keeper makes a meal of a hoofed ball from HU’s own half, that doesn't half travel some, the bounce of which nearly catches him out. Joined by more fans, other Tom who is always in a constant state of motion, not my Tom, is joined by some late comers from the bar, this latest chant has a bit more volume, of “come on Hadley”. Admittedly they are nigh on our shoulder, it is only them we can hear over the HU supporters now, who are far off to our right behind the goal, whose drum and horn I can still hear, but nowhere near as much as those from North West London.

Other Tom’s unwavering optimism, looks like it’s going to be rewarded, “come on Bricks it’s coming” as the away side continue to show all the skill, they were severely lacking in the first half. “You'll get another one” assures one away fan, when the latest chance goes begging. “Come on Hadley” they sing, long and loud, their voices reverberating off the roof of the terrace and when a HU player goes down, let's say easily, it’s met with howls of derision, “Olympic sty-le fella”.

Thirteen minutes gone and HFC are in again for what feels like the zillionth time so far, round the keeper the shot is blocked, going out for a corner, which is headed just wide. “Much better Bricks” shouts an encouraging away fan, one buoyed by his team's up turn in performance, like Tom did, went a bit Carry On, “they don't like it up them”.

In a Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game first, although it's not totally clear at first, because Tom is convinced the HFC player has been sent off, we see our first player sin binned, which is effectively an adult naughty step. Other Tom thinks the player has taken the bait, bitten when he was provoked by HU and off he stomps, my Tom says the sin binned player looks very “angry” as he gets “in the bin”.

Considering they are down to ten men, it makes HFC scoring that little bit more impressive, rushing off the terrace other Tom is almost over the fence leaping up to celebrate, racing back to pound the back of the stand, starting a song with the opening line “we don't need no Tottenham Hotspur” before giving the sin binned player his very own to the tune of Star Man by Bowie, as he warms up readying himself to return. Tom wondering if he should really bother, “they play better without him”.

It’s all HFC, it’s like two different sides have come out, HU are showing none of that early swagger. Their mini Ultras group and their drum is all but silent, all the singing is coming from the rowdy six or seven over my right shoulder, “come on you Bricks” and such is HFC’s dominance, it's taken HU just over twenty minutes to muster a chance on goal, my Tom reckons the change in fortunes, is down to the referee having “changed sides”.

“Fucking hell it cleared the fence” is Tom’s appraisal of HFC’s free kick, in a dangerous position, other Tom reckoned we were about to see the “goal of the season”, but its far from it, another attempt at a Ronaldo knuckleball set piece that is a horror show. It’s then the turn of the HFC manager to get his own song, “black and red army” and the HFC fans have a great knack of switching between their own extensive song book, the next is to the tune of a Supergrass song, and my Tom is very impressed, “very tuneful”.

There is the odd ripple from the HU drum, but not often. Tom is obsessing over the recent HFC substitute, their number 14 who is running the show, whose beard has him captivated. “Manny is a game changer” comments Tom, as the wonderfully bearded ones hard running sets up a chance.

“Shocking, what, no” implores one HFC fan, not having witnessed some great tragedy as his response would imply, but the chalking off of an HFC equaliser, which would have been totally deserved, but it isn't given and queue an absolute tirade aimed at the referee and his assistants. The disallowed goal, with a quarter of an hour to play, feels like a massive turning point, after HFC have run HU ragged for the last half an hour.

With Manny having made such a huge difference since coming on, one has to wonder why he did not start, but Tom has an inkling why, his fitness. Having been on the pitch maybe twenty minutes, as Tom delicately puts it, “he’s breathing out his arse”.

Into the final fifteen, and HU ventures up field for a rare attack and not long after other Tom is back half over the fence, irate at the referee once more, “how did you not see that?”, when Manny looks to have been felled to the ground in the box. HU look rattled, shell shocked even, it continues to be all HFC and one of their fans are so incensed at the latest mistake by the officials, he circles half the pitch, to give the referees assistant opposite a peace of his mind.

I do enjoy a hummed rendition of the Entry of the Gladiators, and I know based on a previous encounter with them, there is no better set of fans than HFC's to pick the most opportune time, to mark a gaff or mistake correctly. When HU's keeper and a defender play a game of 'you have it, no you have' when it comes to taking a free kick, the opening bars emitting from the crowd behind me, feels just like being under the big top.

With the continuing HFC pressure, it's the turn of the home players to start to lose their cool, quarreling with the referee and each other, "boys you're fucking walking". They really have been a
shadow of their first half selves. The sound of home singing and the drum, has now been replaced with the noise of an impromptu kick about and Tom points out that with youth, comes inpatients, "you know what the problem with kids as Ultras is? They get board. Not got long enough attention spans".

The HFC bench instructs the players to "pile on the pressure", one man in the technical area gets very serious with a string, "until the last". Falling short when going toe to toe with HFC, the HU players attempt a few other methods to finish off their opponents, one taking the art of the dive to a new plain, "like a dying swan" cackles one HFC fan.

Growing ever more frustrated, the HFC supporters are watching there chance to gain ground on their fellow promotion pushing contenders slip away. "A sending off offence" barks one, after a HFC player goes down, and while still down, has the ball booted right in his face.

"Keep believing reds" cries one HFC player, "big fucking effort" replies the HU keeper and the departure of HU's goal machine could be telling. "Oh no Haland is off" says Tom, the player on course for his "hattrick" looks to have "done his back in".

There can only be minutes left to play and one HU defender orders his teammates to "keep switched on, these are the last fucking moments". A big tackle up the touchline by a HU player sees the tension raise even higher, "getting spicy" murmurs Tom. When a big away tackle leaves one home player rolling around, the whole of the main stand are on their feet and up in arms. There is an underlying feeling that things might boil over any second.

From point blank range, what looked like HFC's final chance to bag a point, is cleared. The tackles are flying in now even more frequently, the home fans are getting tetchy, "he's having one" says one when the referee once more keeps his cards in his pocket. "Heads up, heads up" are now the shouts from the home bench.

Standing at the back post, Manny looks on hand to grab the glory, right at the death, but a teammate pinches the chip aimed at him, and that feels like that. Flooding from the sidelines the home fans are doing whatever they can to will their team over the finishing line, "come on boys want this", everyone, I mean everyone is shouting, players, fans, from all corners. HU are just about hanging on.

A late away corner is poor, the claim for a penalty feels a bit more like desperation than reality. HU counterattack, bearing down on goal there are calls to "finish it", but the shot is right at the keeper. "How much longer ref?" is the question now on everyone's lips.

To quote the person on the PA, I would agree that the game we just watched was indeed some "scintillating non league football". The points are HU's, just, and just how just, is clear from the relief painted all over the faces of the players in yellow and blue congratulating each other on the pitch.

Plenty of people have their own opinions on HU, and have been more than willing to share them, when this club grabbed all the headlines in the last few years. Opinions about the way they were formed, where in the pyramid they were allowed to enter, and for some just their name.

There is so much snobbery in football, plain and simple, at all levels, and walking hand in hand with traditionalism, it can get a bit unsavory at times. I'm sure in 1882 when a team called Hotspur FC was formed, plenty of people thought that was an odd name too, and when in 1886 a group of munitions workers started a team, people thought who are these upstarts, thinking them can form their own football club.

My point is a name is just a name, be it based on something on a keyboard or a character from Shakespeare, does it really matter? Is a team started by a YouTube channel, not just the 2020 equivalent of a team started by the workers of an electronics company, like PSV?

I saw two things today, that in the five years we've been doing what we do, are far from common sights at all levels and especially non league, an atmosphere for one and at the end did the players march off, get in the shower and go home, did they hell. They signed the autographs, posed for the selfies, they took the time to thank the fans.

If that's what Hashtag United FC are going to bring to the football universe, then call me a Hashtag United FC fan.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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