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It began on the terraces…

Journalist Don Hale achieved international recognition for his work to overturn the conviction of Stephen Downing.
But he might not have got into newspapers without his earlier career as a footballer. In the third of our series looking at sportsmen who became regional press journalists, he recalls how his playing days led to a life as a reporter…

Don got his first break as a footballer at the age of 15 when he signed for Bury FC after England’s triumph in the 1966 World Cup final.

“I signed for Bury as an apprentice when they were in the old second division,” said Don.

“Right from an early age I was keen to be a footballer. I was the county sprint champion and was spotted for my speed.

“Football was certainly not as glamorous back then – the wages were fairly moderate, even for clubs like Man United, but I did better when I was loaned out, as I kept my basic wage from Bury plus win bonuses and travel expenses.”

During one spell, Don scored a record 42 goals in 42 games for Bury reserves and played in front of crowds of more then 10,000 against stronger reserve teams such as Manchester United, Everton and Leeds.

“The reserves could get bigger crowds than the first team – there might be 10,000 to 12,000 watching the reserves and only 5,000 would turn up for the first team. But then sometimes it would just be one man and his dog and you would have to keep going to fetch the ball yourself.”

He enjoyed spells playing for Shrewsbury Town, York City and Blackburn Rovers but a series of injuries prevented his football career from progressing any further.

“A serious back injury meant I couldn’t play for a full season. I broke my leg, broke my wrist and arm and dislocated my shoulder. It all slows you down and makes you more unemployable.

“When I was injured I would sit next to the BBC radio journalists. When they told me what they thought of the game, I would often think ‘what a load of rubbish’.

“It was before the whole pundit thing, but I would give my own in-depth view and it came to be quite fun. I started writing features for the Manchester Evening News and sport magazines and trained to become a journalist, doing evening classes and work experience. I had always enjoyed writing.”

After working for BBC Radio Manchester, Don became sports editor and then editor of the Bury Messenger. He moved to the Bury Times before going to work at the Matlock Mercury.

Despite having to hang up his football boots, Don has kept fit and has run 17 marathons. He said that although people doubted his ability to do that, he has always likes a challenge, which set a precedent for his life as a hack.

He said: “There are many things people have said ‘don’t touch it with a bargepole’ but if I think I’m right and have got a point to prove, I’ll put my name to things.”

Don campaigned for six years for the release of Stephen Downing while at the Matlock Mercury and said that had made him more willing to stand up on his own. It also provided some links back to his days a footballer.

“Alex Ferguson was a big ‘fan’ of the Downing case and he invited me to a Bury versus Man United friendly game at Gigg Lane where I got introduced to all the players.

“Johan Cruyff was also a big fan. He is a bit of a media mogul and he followed the case and my career. His magazine made a comparison with a guy similar to me in Holland who was also a footballer, but got injured, became a journalist and got someone out of prison who had been in for 10-15 years.”

Since the Downing case, Don has helped campaign for others to be released from prison. He has also written several books and the BBC is now making a dramatisation of the fight to free Downing.

  • Read about the footballing career of the Manchester Evening News’ Paul Hince here.
  • Read about Herts and Essex Newspapers managing director Gary Matthews’ days in the semi-professional leagues here.

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