The fallout from the announcement that FA WNL Division One South East side, AFC Basildon, have merged with Hashtag United has overwhelmed even those at the highest levels of the club. Minutes after the news broke, the club’s profile was immediately raised as the newly rebranded Hashtag United FC Women digital platforms began to swell. Aligning themselves with an outfit that has more than 1 million followers across its social media empire was always expected to be big – but not this big.
We caught up with Hashtag United FC Women defender, Mollie Debell, to discuss everything from how the players were told the big news, to her struggles doing the Hashtag symbol.
Behind the curtain
Summoned virtually with the promise of good news, the squad gathered on Zoom, a video conferencing platform that has become famous for being quiz central during the current nationwide lockdown, however in this instance, no questions would be fielded. Instead, the players would be provided with the answer to the question, ‘what’s next for AFC Basildon?’ An answer, Debell says, no one was expecting.
“So we got a text in our WhatsApp group from Sean [Eldridge], one of the committee members. It explained the FA’s decision to void the league season and that the [Essex] County Cup final was currently postponed, and that the FA currently could give no indication of when or if it would take place.”
She continued “But in order to combat the bad news, Sean explained to us that the club had some really exciting plans for us and that things had been developing behind the scenes. And with that, he gave us a date for a Zoom video call where everything would be announced!
The video took place on Friday [17th April] with a presentation to go with it. I couldn’t make the call unfortunately because of work, but I was getting updates from girls – and the group chat was going off because everyone was so excited about it.”
“Honestly, I had no idea, nobody did! I don’t think anybody expected it. New water bottles are a big deal to a club like us…” Debell joked, with a sad truth to her words.
Excitement, acceptance… and water bottles
Reacting to the merger, “The merger is fantastic, for us and for women’s football in general. Although our season got cut short, we finished on such a high, we were bursting with confidence and everyone was just enjoying their football. So of course, when it was voided we were all devastated, but now we have something this special and exciting to look forward to, it is just incredible.
“To know that people with a platform are actually wanting to get involved with us, wanting us to do well, wanting to help us push forward is just such a big deal… The girls and all those behind the scenes are fantastic and to hear how excited everybody is about the whole thing is just so satisfying. It’s so nice to be a part of it,” said Debell. “We worked so hard to bounce back after the 18/19 season; we stuck together through the lowest of times. This is like a reward for us, and we couldn’t be more grateful,” she exclaims.
And while DeBell – a hard-grafting defender whose performances on the pitch are as honest as her words are off of it – wouldn’t single out individuals for praise, she went on to say, “The people that have stuck around and worked their arses off to get us to this point, they know who they are, I am beyond thankful for them. We have been through some really dark and low times, as a club and as individuals. But the same people have weathered the storm and are still here now reaping the rewards! We have such a good group. So many people have grafted behind closed doors just for the smallest amount of sustainability for the club, so for them to get to be a part of this, is just amazing. I am grateful to all of them.”
As for the Hashtag United CEO, Spencer Owen, who has burst into the players’ lives with such an abundance of positive energy, full of praise for the club and women’s football?
You know what,” she begins. “It’s so cringe to say it, but it’s amazing. It feels so good. All the effort that has gone into promoting us already, the time he has taken to make sure it’s all been done properly, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by any of us. It’s just so nice to suddenly have this person backing us and believing in us because, for a long time, nobody outside of our club did.
Spencer [Owen] has worked so hard to get to where he is with his club, and for him to reach out and take an interest in us and to help push us forward… it’s just amazing. He will be an asset to our already amazing team of players and staff.”
The reactions reaction
Anyone involved in women’s football will be aware of the almost inevitable negative comments that plague the internet the moment women’s football is mentioned. Dinosaurs perched all too ready to spout their ill-informed opinions in one breath, followed by the ironic screams of how little they care about the sport the next. Except, when the news spread, it was greeted by overwhelming positivity.
“It’s so good to see!” She began. “Do you know what? I am always sceptical about how people are going to react when things involve women’s football because you always get those few people who want to spoil it by spouting negativity, or by belittling women’s football. But I haven’t seen any of that, literally none at all!
“The reaction has been phenomenal. We’ve had so many nice messages and comments about the merger, that it just feels too good to be true at the moment. Our social media accounts have gone through the roof with support and well-done messages! The girls can’t believe it, none of us can!”
“But with exposure comes responsibility…”
Sustainability is a word that has been used time and time again by anyone associated with the merger. AFC Basildon sought it; Hashtag United offered it. So it’s of little surprise that the players too welcome the security their new reality offers, “Honestly, the relief this brings to all of us. I’ve been texting with a few of the girls, talking about how nice it is to just be excited, wholly excited. As opposed to having to worry if we’re going to survive another season, or stressing over if we’re going to be able to get the funds together to pay our fees for next season. Knowing we have solid financial backing behind us now lifting those struggles off of our shoulders, so that we can solely focus on playing and enjoying our football, is just incredible, said Debell.”
And on the subject of the massive increase in exposure the club, and its players, will receive?
“Right now, we’re just enjoying the moment. I don’t think we’ve thought that far ahead because we’re just far too excited. I have definitely made comments about coming Insta famous finally – ask the girls,” she says half-jokingly. “But with exposure comes responsibility. We know that, of course we do. We understand the level of professionalism that has to accompany carrying a brand like Hashtag, on and off the pitch.
“The extra exposure will be good for us though, we have some really, really talented players at this club and being given this platform enables us to showcase their ability to a wider audience. It also gives us another tool to analyse our performances, individually and collectively.”
“Plus, it means Kelly [Wealthall] can just watch her goals on repeat,” she adds.
The merger brings a new name, but this isn’t about forgetting the club’s history – memories such as winning the league title on the final day of the season against Pompey and beating local rivals Billericay for the first time run deep – it’s about choosing a new direction for their future. One that’s more certain.
And one that’s filled with, in Mollie Debell’s case, failed Hashtags (spoiler: small hands).