Former footballer nets secrets of murder mystery revealed in fascinating new book

Award-winning journalist Don Hale (top left) pictured when he played for Lytham St Annes in the Lancashire Combination, prior to a home cup tie against Wigan Athletic in 1973. 

What have former footballers Frank Lampard Jr, Eamonn Dunphy and Terry Venables all got in common?

Apart from all representing famous London clubs during their careers, the three are also respected authors.

Lampard has won wide acclaim for his Frankie’s Magic Football children’s books, ex-England boss Venables wrote cockney private detective thriller Hazell, which went on to become a TV show, while Dubliner Dunphy produced the highly-praised Only a Game?: Diary of a Professional Footballer recalling his playing days at Millwall before penning biographies about U2 and Sir Matt Busby, as well as becoming an Irish media personality, journalist, broadcaster and sports pundit.

But did you know North Wales has its own version of Lampard Jr, Dunphy and Venables, although this man’s work is of the far more hard-hitting variety?

Former professional footballer, sprinter, author, and investigative journalist Don Hale has just had a new book published about his dramatic eight-year campaign to help free a man wrongly convicted of a brutal murder.

Entitled: Murder in the Graveyard, it is being published by Harper Collins this week in the UK, and next week in America, Canada and Europe, together with an e-book, audio version and podcast.
Don, 66, from Llandudno, was in charge of a small Derbyshire newspaper, the Matlock Mercury in 1994 when he first became embroiled in a bizarre murder mystery and justice campaign that eventually helped to change both European and British Law – and was later accepted as the country’s longest and worst ever miscarriage of justice.

His campaign challenged the existing justice system at that time and forced the government to implement changes to the Parole Board and introduced a new independent body to examine all alleged miscarriage claims as the ‘Criminal Cases Review Commission’ (CCRC).

Bakewell Cemetery

It was a journey however, that was to change his life forever, with death threats, hit and run attempts, bomb scares, attacks on his office, and even intimidation from the authorities to try to make him cease his investigations.

Don faced successive rejections from the Police, Home Office, and Government Ministers, after he submitted file after file in his attempts to try to prove doubt on the conviction of Stephen Downing, a 17-year old youth with learning difficulties, who had been jailed some 21-years earlier for the killing of Wendy Sewell in the Peak District town of Bakewell in 1973.

Downing, who worked at the cemetery, found the victim but was quickly arrested and taken in for questioning where he was forced to sign a confession based on what the police thought had happened at the time. 

Despite quickly retracting the confession and being denied a solicitor or any legal representation during an extensive police interrogation, he was later found guilty and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

The Bury FC squad in 1968/69 that won promotion from Division Three to Division Two as runners-up. Don Hale is pictured on the front row – 3rd from the left – just past Terry McDermott who is on the end (far left) of the same row. Former Liverpool star Alf Arrowsmith is just behind Don – 4th on middle row – with Ray Parry at the far right on the end.

All this was completely new and dangerous territory for Don, who left school in 1968 with the intention of becoming a professional footballer with his home town club Bury FC

A talented sprinter with track records at 100, 200, 400 metres and relay; and captain of the school cross-country, town and county football teams, he was first spotted by former England goalkeeper Colin McDonald, the club’s chief scout, due to his exceptional speed on the wing and invited for trials at Gigg Lane.

Don signed schoolboy forms for Bury in July 1966 just as England won the World Cup at Wembley and went on to play hundreds of games for the junior teams, youth, reserve and some occasional first team representative matches.

He was even mentored as a raw youngster by Colin Bell, and Ray Parry, future and past England stars, and was a member of the Bury squad that finished as Third Division runners-up in 1968/69. 

Don Hale

He played with Terry McDermott later of Liverpool and Newcastle fame, Welsh international Greg Farrell, Scottish international Jimmy Kerr, and even Bobby Collins, the former Leeds United star.

Don was loaned out to Blackburn Rovers, York City and Shrewsbury Town, before a serious back injury eventually curtailed any top flight ambitions.

He explained: “They were fabulous days as a youngster and I loved playing with some of the top players of that era, and we even had a wonderful fitness guy in Joe Lancaster, the Great Britain athletics coach.”

Don continued to play part time with several non-league clubs before taking up coaching and completing his training as a journalist with the BBC, working as a football and sports commentator and pundit.

He was employed by a number of top regional and national newspapers and eventually became editor of five award-winning regional papers.

Don gradually built back his fitness and returned to running, once even finishing ahead of the great Olympic athlete Ron Hill in a 10,000-metre track race, and also London Marathon founder Chris Brasher – a pace-maker for Roger Bannister’s incredible four-minute mile record in 1954, during a road race. 

And Don, now a keen veteran athlete, continues to turn out for North Wales Road Runners Club, at a reasonably high standard, and was even selected for Wales last year at the age of 65 for a 10k road race, representing the Celtic Nations at Birmingham.

Don Hale is still a keen and successful runner

His exploits into the realms of amateur sleuth/detective though came about by pure chance when the family of Stephen Downing, who lived near Matlock approached him with claims of fresh evidence that could perhaps help to clear their son’s name. 

It turned out to be a false alarm, but the case caught Don’s attention and following an extensive investigation, he was able to produce a mass of new information, contradictory witness statements, and expert evidence to successfully challenge the conviction.

Downing was finally released in 2001 after serving over 27-years for a murder he did not commit with his conviction overturned the following year. He later received a record amount of compensation. 

For his efforts, Don was later awarded an OBE from the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles for campaign journalism. He has since been involved with three other successful miscarriage cases, including that of Barry George, wrongfully convicted of the Jill Dando murder. He was the Observer ‘Man of the Year’ in 2000 and has won the ‘Journalist of the Year’ title on three previous occasions.

The book – Murder in the Graveyard – is an extraordinary account of Don’s intensive battle to help quash Downing’s conviction, and re-examines a raft of previously unseen material, documentation, evidence, and facts that exposes what could and should have happened nearly 46-years ago in a remote graveyard, and explains why this still unsolved murder mystery continues to fascinate, yet haunt this picturesque town.

The book launches in the UK on June 13 and in America, Canada and Europe the following week, June 18. It is also available via Amazon:

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