“Virgil Van Dijk walked into to the room and called my name before I even said anything,” says Specs. “For him to instantly recognise me…” He pauses and adjusts his glasses, evidently still struggling to comprehend the memory.
“In my head I’m thinking I can’t believe this, that’s the best defender in the world!”
For Specs Gonzalez, whose real name is Ferdinand, being greeted by a Champions League winner and the Netherlands’ captain would have been a distant dream five years ago. Prior to such surreal moments, Specs was a grassroots football coach and part-time DJ in North London.
After being convinced, however, by his close friend ‘Poet’ to appear on a YouTube football analysis show called ‘FilthyFellas’, the goalposts in Specs’ life began to shift.
“I would tell Poet that I’m not that kind of guy, I’m just a P.E. teacher. But he would keep saying, ‘Specs you have to come and work on camera’. I finally listened and was amazed.”
Since then, he has become a staple of the weekly YouTube show, where the group take turns in pairs to provide a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the week’s footballing events.
The channel’s unapologetic authenticity even initially surprised Specs, “I did not realise we would be able to have a show where the mandem [group of friends] would just be able to come and be ourselves.”
Social media and platforms, such as YouTube, are continually reshaping the landscape surrounding football entertainment and fandom.
For every net-bulging goal, there now seems to be an equally bewildering reaction or comment as a supplementing talking point for fans.
This has opened the floodgates for an increasingly diverse range of voices to comment on the game, consequently taking the sport into unchartered territory.
For example, last season Arsenal reportedly reprimanded their talismanic striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for his close friendship with ‘Troopz’, an Arsenal Fan TV contributor. The controversial Arsenal Fan TV, or ‘AFTV’ as it has been rebranded, is a YouTube channel that built a following by displaying supporter reactions and, since its inception, has amassed over 783 million YouTube views.
To place that towering figure in context, Arsenal’s own YouTube channel has 292 million total views.
A partial explanation of this phenomenon is that football fans are increasingly participating in their own punditry. A recent fan insight study by sports marketing agency, Ear to the Ground, discovered that 75% of 16-30 year olds surveyed said that they discussed matches in private group forums, including WhatsApp.
The brainchild of pioneering online content creator Poet, otherwise known as Kyle Stewart, FilthyFellas was born from one of these group chats. It grew from his aspiration to make football content reflective of the conversations he was having with friends and those around the estates of Tottenham, where he grew up and was once a community coach for Tottenham Hotspur football club. Following a chance encounter at a football match six years ago with Tego Sigel, the creative director at urban youth lifestyle magazine RWD, FilthyFellas was taken from keypads to camera.
Each week the group meets in a multi-functional office space in Dalston, East London, with arguments erupting even before filming occurs. The atmosphere borders chaotic and absurd hilarity, and could easily be mistaken for a school playground.
At first glance, the provocative show may simply come across as lacking any purpose beyond ‘banter’. Yet, between the relentless laughter and playful insults, there is also an undeniable camaraderie among the members.
It gradually becomes apparent that the show does more than provide these friends from minority backgrounds in London a shared outlet to express themselves. From their vernacular to the boisterous environment, FilthyFellas actually mirrors countless friendship groups across London.
Its popularity stems from being a surrogate voice for other young men with a shared cultural footballing experience in the nation’s capital.
“I want to talk about football the way that I want to talk about football,” says Specs, who has forged a personal mantra that “there’s no rules”. When questioned on the origins of his motto’s relationship to football analysis, he animatedly exclaims, “It’s the Whatsapp groups, being in your house, or in the ends [local area]. Just talking about football with no sort of rules or being professional about it.
“I understand that when you’re on TV there are some boundaries but, come on, if you’re at my house and we’re playing FIFA, talking about football – it’s a free world!”
In their ‘Modern Football Fan’ report, football media company, copa90, labelled FilthyFellas as a ‘new voice of authority’ on the game. Mainstream media has also begun to take notice of the increasing desire from fans for less traditional styles of punditry and more informal analysis.
Sky Sports are now in their second season of ‘The Football Social’, a programme that brings together a panel of ex-players, pundits and influencers to discuss the game. Similarly, this season BBC launched ‘MOTDx’, a youth-oriented offshoot of the iconic Match of the Day, which focuses on the culture around Premier League football.
As a global pandemic puts sport on pause, the spotlight has brightened on alternative content to satiate fans’ appetites. While large corporations frantically scramble to provide engaging viewing, FilthyFellas, who are now in their sixth season, have kicked on seamlessly.
Although their viewing figures are hardly record-breaking [averaging 50,000 views per episode], it is the group’s influence on Premier League culture, however, that is striking.
The popularity of his distinctively comical personality has led to Specs becoming a full-time presenter. By consistently working with multinational brands, such as JD, he now regularly interacts with footballers, making moments like the one with Van Dijk possible.
Yet, finding fans among Premier League stars is hardly an anomaly for the group. ‘Skribz’, an original cast member and Poet’s cousin, recounts being similarly perplexed after discovering that Manchester United legends’ Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher were admirers of the show at the launch of the former’s clothing line. While Miles Fearon, a more recent addition, engaged in a light-hearted exchange with Troy Deeney on social media, after teasing the Watford captain about his teeth on an episode.
Another ‘FilthyFella’ and West Ham supporter, Stevo ‘The Madman’, whose real name is Kevin Stephens, is an ex-professional with spells at Leyton Orient and Newport County. Following retirement and joining the show, Stephens has also become a Snapchat sensation, where he has over a million followers.
Alongside documenting his life, Stevo also often connects with fans by making a ‘Spartans’ sign. England international Danny Welbeck, however, used it as an opportunity to pour salt on the wounds for Stephens. The ex-Arsenal man celebrated with the sign after a goal against West Ham, and later reminding the social media celebrity about it with an Instagram post.
Similarly, last season Bernardo Silva fulfilled a promise to David Vujanic, another group member, by celebrating after scoring against Bournemouth with a thumbs-up to the pitch-side camera – an ode to Vujanic’s ‘Have a nice’ catchphrase. Arsenal star and growing fashion icon Hector Bellerin also wore football boots last season that were designed by Poet, the lynchpin of the group.
The list is endless.
The organic relationships with footballers and influence on Premier League culture, however, have not always been so effortless. Tego Sigel, the show’s producer, recounts some of the initial complications they faced.
“There was a point when the FA [English Football Association] told us we were too dangerous. This was before Gareth Southgate and before the national team was ‘cool’ again.”
Times have since changed. “A couple years later they want us there and one of our original cast, Craig Mitch, is the official presenter of their YouTube channel. That is the best representation of the cultural shift. There are different people there now, who know that the players are going to get made fun off.”
“They know that there are people out there who are going to pick up on silly things like, ‘oh his haircut’ or ‘look at the way he tucks in his shirt’, and that is what we are going to talk about.”
“It should not be mistaken, however, that this is very black, and it is very London,” says a poised Sigel.
“There have been episodes without a single white person on our show and there’s an element of that, which I think, holds us back because we know how fast you can get through gears by being and looking a certain way.”
The thick London accent and multiculturalism that defines the show is also visible through its guests. Grime stars of past and present, such as Tinchy Stryder and AJ Tracey have made appearances, while the current cast includes ‘Skits’ and ‘Jordy’ of upcoming rap collective, Vibbar, suggesting an increasing fusion between music and football in the country.
Another cast member, Daniel ‘Savage Dan’ Stewart, believes the increasing diversity in football will make the cohesion between sports and urban music inevitable, based on America’s blueprint.
“Majority of NBA [National Basketball Association] players are black and, by nature, they are going to gravitate more towards Hip hop. The connection is simply there more because of the personnel.
“In ten years time, when the ball really gets rolling you will see a bigger change, but for now if you take away Arsenal and London and look at teams up and down the country – the majority are white. Not saying that they’re middle class, but they’re less connected with our music and our world.”
“That is why the crossover has not happened in the most vicious way yet. They are flirting with each other at the moment, but it will happen soon and will be good for everyone. ”
“After all, don’t all sports people want to be musicians in many ways, and all the musicians want to be footballers?”
And how does FilthyFellas fit into this? “You look at the England team now and there’s loads of minority background players, which is why Filthy and stuff like this is making a big impact,” says Dan.
The show’s cultural influence has led to it becoming a breeding ground of sorts for presenters and influencers that are the changing face of football content. Dan is currently a presenter for Chelsea football club’s YouTube channel, Specs and Harry Pinero have made recurring appearances on Sky’s ‘Football Social’, and former member Craig Mitch, has had various presenting roles and is currently a host on MOTDx.
Poet, after departing from copa90, has created his own football-oriented YouTube channel, alongside long-time collaborator and fellow FilthyFella, David Vujanic. Branding themselves the ‘Ethnic Ant and Dec’, the channel has already gained over 100,000 subscribers and 5 million views since the beginning of the Premier League season. Others are in similar positions of influence or have gone on to elevate their personal ventures through raising their profiles from the show.
“Everyone’s from a minority background, everyone is from London, it’s amazing to think where we’ve come from, but Filthy can’t take credit for anyone’s success”, says Sigel about the casts’ blossoming careers. “What we can say is that we kind of focused in and helped everyone to be a little more commercial and how to evolve as collaborators.”
He is also quick to distinguish the show from AFTV, and other similar channels. “We are completely different to Arsenal Fan TV. They’ve obviously continued down their path, but there was a time when we were associated with them because it’s fan culture, but we did not want to be in stadiums – we wanted to be on social media and to be watching it on TV. Almost like a barbershop, we have been just trying to find unique talking points.”
Or as Miles Fearon confidently sums up, “we are the underground Match of the Day.”
You can stay updated with the FilthyFellas’ outrageously hilarious antics by following their YouTube channel here.
You can also keep up with them by following their socials:
Twitter – @Filthy_fellas
Instagram – @filthy_fellas
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