Lewis Hardcastle looks healthy and relaxed as he sips from a bottle of water in a café and prepares to talk. It has taken him three years to reach this point and for most of that time, he says, he has not been in any frame of mind to do so.

Finally, the former Barrow AFC captain is ready to find the words to explain how it felt to lose his career to a heart condition at 22: the emotions this unearthed, the difficulty it caused him and how he eventually found a new path and new happiness.

Today, Hardcastle runs his own coaching business and is also a first-team coach with Northern Premier League Premier Division club Macclesfield FC, having recently moved with manager Michael Clegg from Warrington Rylands.

He is enjoying life back in the game, close to the front line. “Nothing will ever compare to walking out on a Saturday at 3pm,” he says. “But it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to it.”

Hardcastle’s playing career ended abruptly three years ago today, on March 24, 2021. He was a rising young professional who was at the forefront of Barrow’s historic early months back in the Football League. An energetic midfielder, whose game was laced with quality, he felt dizzy during a series of games for the Bluebirds, and subsequent tests revealed the grave and urgent truth: that if he continued to play, his life would be at serious risk.

He now has perspective on the sad decision this entailed, but in the immediate period after retiring, Hardcastle was in turmoil. “If it wasn’t for my family, friends and the people I had around me, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t know if I’d be here,” he says.

“I’ve been on antidepressants. At my lowest, I’d go out drinking most weekends. I just felt like I had no life. One day I went out on a Thursday and mum woke me up on the stairs.

“I just felt worthless. I know drinking doesn’t help because you just feel worse the next day, but at the time, those few hours when I was drinking it completely blocked everything out.

“That happened quite a few times, until I got my head screwed on.”


Hardcastle is still a young man at 25 but has had to gain the outlook of someone much older, who has experienced more than most at such an age. He is unsparing in the way he talks about the depths of sudden retirement, which was particularly cruel given the brightness of his career until that point.

To paint the full picture, we go back to the beginning. He was six when he was scouted whilst playing for his local club, Atherton LR. Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United were interested but Hardcastle opted for Blackburn Rovers. “At eight, I was the youngest player ever to sign for Blackburn,” he says. “And I was there until I was 21. Absolutely loved my time there. Some of the people I met there are some of my best friends now.”

Hardcastle felt he had a better chance of coming through at Blackburn than Man Utd, given the more intense competition at the latter. At 17 he went on loan to Salford City, who were in the early days of their Class of 92-fuelled surge through non-league.

It was a defining spell for the teenager. “We had a couple of FA Cup games on telly – Notts County and Hartlepool – and I always think if it wasn’t for those, when people were watching, I might not have got a pro contract,” he says.

The Mail: Hardcastle in action for Salford aged 17Hardcastle in action for Salford aged 17 (Image: PA)

“It was men’s football. It did loads for me. In that dressing room you had players like Danny Webber, Gareth Seddon, Jordan Hulme, and then Jonno and Bern [Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley] as managers.

“I had to man up, because there were so many men in there. I wouldn’t say Jonno and Bern were harsh, but they treated me exactly the same as if I was 30 or 31.”

Hardcastle enjoyed his time as a boy in a man’s world – and also glimpses of the glamour behind Salford’s rise. “We beat Notts County, which was unexpected, and afterwards we went back to Hotel Football [near Old Trafford], which Gary Neville owned, for a few drinks. Paul Scholes was someone I always idolised, and when I walked in he was just sitting there with a bottle of wine. I was only 17. It was dead surreal.”

His first Football League experience then came with Port Vale, where he benefited from the further hard experience of players such as Tom Pope and Antony Kay, but did not, he says, get the opportunities he felt he warranted under manager Neil Aspin. “It made me realise that not every loan is going to be good,” he says. “You can still take that learning curve as a positive.”

After returning to Blackburn’s Under-23s, Hardcastle was itching to play more senior football which, realistically, was going to be elusive at Ewood Park. “I ended up going to Barrow on a month’s loan, just to see how it was, what the level was like. And I loved it.”

The Bluebirds were being put on a proactive new path by manager Ian Evatt in the National League. “David Dunn, who was my coach at Blackburn, was close with Evatt, and after a couple of sessions at Barrow, Evatt rang him and said, ‘We want him permanently’. My contract was up at the end of the season, so we just let it run out and I signed the next season.

“I knew from day dot that he wanted me. It’s always good to feel loved, isn’t it?”

Hardcastle was quickly at the core of Barrow as, in 2019/20, they hit enterprising form and emerged as serious promotion contenders. “Our budget was in the bottom five in the league – so it was nothing to do with money. We just had a good group of players who wanted to win and to die for each other on a Saturday,” he says. “It’s really rare to come across that.

“Don’t get me wrong, it had some quality. John Rooney scored some belters, Scott Quigley…good players, good people. I had Rooney, Tom White and Jason Taylor as the main three midfielders I had to compete with. It was a really good battle between us all, and such a close, tight-knit squad.”

Barrow’s imaginative football under Evatt was admired, and the prospect of returning to the Football League for the first time in 48 years grew. “When we beat Ebbsfleet 7-0 at home, you just knew we had something special,” he says. “Winning 3-0 at Notts County was probably the best game of the season. We had 900 Barrow fans in the top row – going over to them at the end, knowing you’d got three points against top of the league…that was the best feeling ever.”

Barrow’s table-topping form wobbled a little in late winter and then, in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the season. The confusion of when, or if, football would resume introduced a frustrating twist to Barrow’s drive for promotion. Hardcastle says he is not convinced they would have made it had games continued, given their blip and some big games to come, including one against rivals Harrogate Town.

Yet they remained top on merit and, when it was decided to settle the season on points-per-game, promotion was confirmed. “Evatt put in a group chat, ‘WE’VE DONE IT’, with a video of him popping a bottle. Then it got announced on Sky Sports News,” Hardcastle says. “But we couldn’t celebrate together because of Covid. You were in your ‘bubble’, so I went straight to the shop and got some beers, and then me, my brother, mum and stepdad all celebrated in the house that way.”

Months later, with certain restrictions relaxed, Hardcastle and his team-mates enjoyed a socially-distanced trophy celebration at Holker Street. It was not the party Barrow would have wished for but Hardcastle says: “Personally, I felt selfish moaning. It was an absolutely ridiculous time for people. I didn’t want to moan about not playing on a Saturday, or not being able to celebrate, while people were getting ill and losing their lives.”

He did not realise how the sharp truth of that perspective would come to his own door soon. The 2020/21 season began behind closed doors and with a new manager at Barrow, for David Dunn had replaced the Bolton-bound Evatt. “I was buzzing,” says Hardcastle. “He [Dunn] rang me to say he was looking like getting the job, and after that call I knew I had to hit the ground running. I did loads of 5k and 10k runs with my brother, trying to beat each other’s time. I went back to pre-season the fittest I’ve ever been.

The Mail: Hardcastle was a key member of Barrow's promotion side of 2019/20Hardcastle was a key member of Barrow's promotion side of 2019/20 (Image: The Mail)

“Dunny pulled me and said, ‘You’re lapping people in runs, you look in the shape of your life. I’m thinking about making you captain’. I’ll always thank Dunny for that. I don’t think anyone else would have had that trust in me’.”

Hardcastle was a young skipper, but had captained many teams throughout his teens and took pride in Barrow’s armband as they began the difficult transition to League Two. “I was so fit and energetic,” says Hardcastle. “I think that carried me through games at times. But I also think that could have brought on what happened.”


The first time he recognised a problem was in the 90th minute of a 1-0 defeat at Southend United on January 9, 2021. “I went down on my knees and felt dizzy. I didn’t really look into it. I played a few more games, but every game it was getting worse and worse. It would probably last ten seconds, then I’d be good for a few minutes – but it was happening more frequently.

“Then, when we played at Salford, I came out for the second half and felt awful. I tried to make a block, but just had to go down on my knees. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Hardcastle says a doctor’s initial feeling was that he had an ear infection. “He gave me some drops and some spray. But it didn’t go away. One particular day, I was driving in for training but had to pull over on the hard shoulder. I couldn’t see. I looked in the mirror and my face was bright red. I trained as normal, and on the way home the exact same thing happened.”

The Mail: Hardcastle, right, captained Barrow on their return to the EFL - but that season suffered problems in games which were eventually linked to the heart problem that would end his careerHardcastle, right, captained Barrow on their return to the EFL - but that season suffered problems in games which were eventually linked to the heart problem that would end his career (Image: PA)

Hardcastle did not realise that, in those moments, he was suffering cardiac arrests. “Because I was so fit at the time, my body just rejected it. Being so fit saved my life.”

Any routine heart checks during his young career had shown up nothing of concern, Hardcastle having undertaken his previous one at Blackburn when he was 17. He was subjected to further tests after telling his physio and doctor of the latest episodes. “It was decided I should get my heart scanned…just to rule everything out," he says.

“I’d still be getting these episodes. I’d be having them in bed at night. I then got a call on a Thursday night saying, ‘You need to get to the hospital, quick’. They said, ‘It’s your heart’.”

“Wow. It was mixed emotions. I was telling my mum, crying my eyes out. I had no idea what was happening. I went into hospital on that Thursday night, had a few more tests, they started me on some medication to see if it calmed down – and on the Monday morning the consultant walked in and gave me the news that I couldn’t play football again.”

Hardcastle, who was being assessed at the Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital, says he was not ordered to retire, but strongly advised of the risks to his life if he continued playing. He felt he had little option but to heed the advice.

How did he process this awful realisation? “It was extra difficult because it was still the Covid procedures in hospitals, so I couldn’t have any visitors. I was in a side room and it was just me and Dr Todd, my consultant. Emotions were flying everywhere. I asked if my family could come, and we’d do the metre-apart thing, just so I could see them. He managed to sort it out and my brother, mum and girlfriend came, and we were only allowed 15 minutes together.

“I had the operation on the Tuesday, then I was out of hospital the next day.”

Hardcastle walked through the hospital’s door as a former footballer. Initially he was unwilling to accept the full reality of this. “As the first couple of months passed, I was like, ‘I’m still gonna play, something will come up’." Medication was helping, but Hardcastle now recognises his stubborn insistence must have tested his family.

His condition – arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy – had entailed the fitting of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator into his chest. “I went to Stevenage away [with Barrow], and ended up having a cardiac arrest and my defib came to life. It happened again on the Monday,” he says. “I went back to hospital, they changed my meds, and from then everything was fine.

The Mail: Hardcastle had a defibrillator device fitted after his condition was diagnosedHardcastle had a defibrillator device fitted after his condition was diagnosed (Image: Lewis Hardcastle)

“But from that moment, I remember thinking, ‘It’s not worth it’. I didn’t want to be on the pitch, with my mum and girlfriend in the crowd, and collapsing.

“With my condition, the more exercise you do, the worse your heart gets. With someone like Christian Eriksen [the Denmark midfielder who collapsed during Euro 2020], it’s totally different. He can play, have two cardiac arrests, the defib will come to life and it won’t knock any years off his lifetime.

“With me, the more exercise I do, the younger I’ll die. One thing that sticks with me is the doctor saying, ‘If you carry on with football, come your late 20s and early 30s you won’t be here’. That’s the severity of it. I couldn’t do that to my family.”

Hardcastle says that harsh realisation helped him see the light, but adds of the feeling of loss: “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was the hardest time by far in my life.”

He leaned on his family and friends, he says, less so his clubs. “I got lots of support from my friends in football. From the clubs I played at…I got very little. At Barrow, the Bluebirds Trust did a fundraiser for me, and one of the lads got me a little fundraiser too. The clubs themselves did hardly anything for me.

“I don’t want to sound bad. Blackburn and Barrow helped me so much in my career. I don’t want to dig them out and say they were awful clubs and people – it’s not like that. They might have had bigger things to worry about at the time. But when I needed the support, they weren’t there to support me.”

Hardcastle had days when he would drink for distraction, but says those around him were determined to limit his loneliness. “When I got out of hospital, everyone was having days off to be with me. My missus [Charley], my mum…they were trying to keep my mind busy so I wouldn’t sit there and think about it.”


As time put some distance between Hardcastle and retirement, he began to contemplate the future and the idea of fighting back. He took a personal training course but it was not a vocation he enjoyed. “I started labouring for my mate, just to keep my mind busy. After that I went into a traffic management job.”

The man in charge of the latter was also involved with the non-league football club Daisy Hill, in Westhoughton, and invited Hardcastle to take some sessions. He also had the idea of starting his own coaching business and was given the use of a local club’s facilities by its secretary, who was also his stepfather.

“I got a few cones, a few balls, just to see if I enjoyed it. As time went on I got more equipment, more clients – and I found that I really enjoyed helping kids, as well as men, girls, boys…

The Mail: After retirement, Hardcastle launched his own coaching school, while he is now first-team coach at Macclesfield FCAfter retirement, Hardcastle launched his own coaching school, while he is now first-team coach at Macclesfield FC (Image: Lewis Hardcastle)

“I was quite busy as soon as I started it up. I put it on social media and everyone that knew me helped spread the word. I was busy through the week and on a Sunday I’d be doing ten hours back-to-back.

“It meant I didn’t have time to think about stuff. I wanted to get out of the house, keep myself busy. I’m not saying there weren’t some days when I sat down and dwelled on things. But it helped my frame of mind, massively.”

Hardcastle enjoyed passing on skills and advice he had gleaned in his career, and while he also enjoyed coaching at Daisy Hill, craved a more professional environment. Clegg, the former Manchester United player, had got the Warrington Rylands job in February last year, and asked Hardcastle to help him.

“We had about nine games left in the season, and when I went in, I was really confident,” he says. “As a player I was really loud. I could easily have taken a training session when I was 18. I always felt I was kind of a coach on the pitch as well.

“I always thought at some point I would go into management or coaching. I just didn’t think it was going to be so soon. Speaking in front of 20 lads…to some people it would be daunting. There’s no hiding place at all. I just thought, ‘If I want to do this, I’ve got to do it’. I threw myself into the deep end.”

Hardcastle last month followed Clegg and fellow coach Nicky Hunt to Macclesfield. He is currently taking his UEFA B Licence coaching qualifications, and has aspirations in the dugout.

“A hundred per cent I want to be a manager,” he says. “I’d never say I’m happy with what’s happened to me, but with the way it’s turned out, I can have a head start on people that are retiring at 35. I’m 25, and a young coach, but I’m happy with how much progress I’m making. The buzz is nowhere near as good as it was from playing, but that’s life, isn’t it? I do enjoy winning games, helping people, seeing them improve.”

Do the stresses of matchday pose any risk to his health? “It’s not caused an issue yet, touch wood,” he says. “The consultant didn’t mention that. It’s more exercise in my case.”

He has to be continually mindful about physical activity, even in coaching. “I can’t join in training,” he says. “I just put sessions on for the lads. I’ll zing some balls about, but I won’t join in anything high-intensity.

"My consultant says I have to avoid anything that’s going to raise my heart rate above 120. I can still go to the gym and do light weights, light bike sessions, take the dog for a walk. I just can’t be as active as I was.”

Hardcastle must also observe the routines of his altered life. “I’ve got a little device beside my bed that gets all the data from my defib,” he says. “That gets transferred to the hospital. I’m on eight pills a day, and things are really stable at the minute.

“All that was a lot to take in at the start. But three years on, it’s just the norm, really.”

The Mail: Hardcastle pictured recently as he told his story to The MailHardcastle pictured recently as he told his story to The Mail (Image: The Mail)

Hardcastle has had plenty to contend with – and even this painful and challenging story is not the entirety of it – but something else has lifted him, higher than anything else. Last September he and Charley became parents to a son, Bobby.

He beams when the conversation moves on to parenthood. “We’re so lucky,” he says. “As soon as I heard his first cry, I couldn’t stop crying for ten minutes. He’s been a little diamond, an absolute dream.

“When you’re have down days – and I have dark days still, a few times a week – you see his smiling face and it just takes all that negativity away. The emotions…you can’t explain it. There’s nothing in this world like it.”

PART TWO TOMORROW: "My life was in 12 random people’s hands...it was hell" - Lewis Hardcastle opens up on his court case ordeal