“These past four years I’ve been through absolute hell and back,” says Lewis Hardcastle, who is daring to face the future again after not one but two serious ordeals which upended his life in ways he could not have imagined.

In his early 20s, Bolton-born Hardcastle lost his football career to a heart condition. Whilst trying to come to terms with that he also found himself accused of rape and sexual assault: allegations from which he was finally cleared in December last year.

At 25 Hardcastle is at last on the other side of it and prepared to talk about the experience. He believes there are lessons for others who may find themselves in similar situations, whilst this is also his opportunity to tell his story, his way: a kind of catharsis, after years of worry and torment.

“I’ll never forget the emotions when you’re up there in court, and your life is in 12 random people’s hands,” he says of his trial by jury at Bolton Crown Court. “When the not guilty verdicts were read out, I looked over to my family and cried and cried for about ten minutes.

“I went over and started hugging them, and crying some more. I can get emotional now, thinking about it. It had been such a bad time for me and my family. My mum, brother, girlfriend, were all there, crying their eyes out.”


A few days before this interview, Hardcastle had watched Jack Diamond, the Carlisle United player on loan from Sunderland, open up about his own rape accusation, and the court case which cleared him, to Piers Morgan on Talk TV. Hardcastle admired how candid Diamond had been, and realised there was merit in sharing his own experience.

“I don’t want to go into too much detail, but things happened on a night out, and I got accused of sexual assault and rape,” he says. “I knew what went on on the night."

Hardcastle says the evening in question came during a period in 2019 when he had temporarily split up with his partner Charley. He says what happened with a young woman after a night out was consensual yet it brought accusations both to Hardcastle and another man.

“Obviously some stuff happened – I admitted to having sex with her,” he says. 

The Bolton News: Lewis Hardcastle in action for Barrow in 2019 - the year he was accused of rapeLewis Hardcastle in action for Barrow in 2019 - the year he was accused of rape (Image: The Mail)

Hardcastle says he learned of the accusations after a game for Barrow AFC at Ebbsfleet in the National League. “The other [man] who was involved, his sister rang me – I had five missed calls from her after the game. I rang back and she said we were both being accused.

“The [police] had been to my house on the Friday looking for me. My mum and brother were there, and they didn’t want to tell me because they knew I had a game the next day. I ended up having to go to Swinton Police Station, stay the night and give a statement to next morning.

“Knowing I’d not done anything wrong…I can’t put into words what I was going through.”

Hardcastle made a further statement several months later and the period of waiting for definitive news on the case was, he says, a torment. He developed a fear of the next call, of the sight of a police car. “Any time I heard sirens, it was like, ‘Are they here for me?’ I was so scared at the time, as a young lad. I didn’t know what was going to come of it.”

Come December 2020, he was called by an officer handling the case. “I had a voicemail after training. I was bricking it. I rang him back, and he said the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] hadn’t got enough evidence to take it forward, and it was getting knocked on the head. I was told the accuser was likely to appeal but that it was rare for anything to come of that.

“I rang my mum and she was crying her eyes out down the phone. I didn’t hear anything else for maybe five months. Then everything happened with my heart.”

In early 2021 Hardcastle was wracked by the news that he had to give up his professional career in order to save his life. At 22 he was dealing with the sudden reality that he was a former footballer. This was a brutally difficult time and yet it transpired that the rape case was also far from over.

“I was in hospital, because of issues with my medication – and I got an email from my solicitor saying it was going to court,” he says. “Talk about a double whammy.”


Before this point Hardcastle had been able to use football as an escape. “I’d go into training, and would play, and that took my mind off it. It meant I’d have half a day when I didn’t think about it, but once I got home, that’s when it would be back in my head. I was just in disbelief.”

Hardcastle’s case was due to be heard soon but the Covid-19 pandemic postponed the proceedings and many others. “I had to go to a couple of court dates to show my face. At one of them the judge said it was ridiculous how long it was taking. They weren’t taking it as a priority.

“When you’ve been accused of something like that, how can it not be a priority?”

A backlog of trials meant Hardcastle had to wait, and wait. As the country emerged from lockdown, and social life could resume, he found life further taxing once news of his charges had been published.

The Bolton News: Hardcastle was charged soon after his career was ended by a heart conditionHardcastle was charged soon after his career was ended by a heart condition (Image: The Mail)

“My family knew, a few of my friends know, but then when it went public…it was hard,” he says. He was now back with Charley and adds: “My girlfriends’ mates were seeing the article getting linked in group chats. And I was an absolute mess. I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t want to go out where I lived, around Atherton. My girlfriend didn’t want to go out and have people question her about it. My brother didn’t. It was a hard time for everyone.”

It took until November of last year for the trial to begin. “The trial was awful,” Hardcastle says. “It lasted about four weeks. It was scheduled for seven days, but then it went into the second week, then one of the jury members couldn’t be there for the third week, so it went into a fourth week.”

Hardcastle says he was totally clear about his innocence, and adds that the evidence in the trial appeared to “all go in my favour,” yet he could not take for granted that the jury would return the verdict he wanted. “My solicitor and barrister told me to make sure I packed a bag, because you don’t know what they’re going to say," he said.

“So I’m packing a bag at home, seeing my dog and my little baby, thinking, ‘This could be the last time I see you for a while’. I told my missus, my brother, my dad and my mum that I wanted them in court, just in case I did get sent down. I wanted to see them.

“I knew what I did and what I didn’t do. I can’t say that enough. But it was just trying to get that point across to those 12 random people. I’d like to say I was confident, but there’s always something in the back of your mind… ‘I know I’m innocent, but do they?’

“I’d say I was 70-30 confident going into it. In that circumstance, 30 is a big number.”

Hardcastle says the wait for the verdict was excruciating. “You’re sat outside the courtroom waiting for someone to come out and say the judge was ready for you. But in this case it came up on the Tannoy – that I had to go to Court One for the verdict. I heard that and just turned to my brother. I must have looked like a ghost.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it now. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever been through, and that’s including what I’ve been through with my heart. This topped it, easily.”

Hardcastle’s friend, who was also accused, was first to hear his verdicts, and was not guilty on all four charges. Then came Hardcastle’s five charges. “They read them all out – all ‘not guilty’. The judge said, ‘You’re free to go – I never want to see you again,’ that kind of thing. I said, ‘You won’t’…”

There was, he says, an initial emotional release, as he embraced his family and tears burst from them all. From there it was a slow, complex realisation that he could move on with his life.

He says: “It took about three or four weeks to sink in. For a while afterwards, I’d wake up in the morning and without even thinking would go and get my suit. Then I’d realise, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“All my family celebrated that night, but I had training with Warrington Rylands [where Hardcastle was a first-team coach]. They were saying ‘Have the night off’. I said, ‘No – I want to get back to normal life’. I didn’t want to celebrate something that never happened. I understand that point of view, but once I was cleared, I just wanted to get back to normality.”

Since then, Hardcastle has finally been able to move forward. It is three years since his heart forced him to retire, a spell he has used to figure out the future in terms of a football coaching career. He can also now focus on family life with Charley, and their baby son Bobby, with clarity around them, not the fear of a siren or the judgement of others.

The Bolton News: Hardcastle now runs his own coaching company and is also first-team coach at Macclesfield FC, after a spell with Warrington RylandsHardcastle now runs his own coaching company and is also first-team coach at Macclesfield FC, after a spell with Warrington Rylands (Image: Supplied)

“Charley had known me for four years prior to all this, so she knew [what I was accused of] wasn’t me at all,” he says. “When she got over the initial shock of it, she said it was a total shambles. She’s been an absolute diamond through everything.

“Honestly, I can’t thank her enough for how she’s been there for me, through this, and through what happened with my football career. It was probably harder for her, having to deal with me and with my moods being all over the place.”

He says the support of Charley, and his close family, has made him feel it appropriate to speak out now. “I want to get awareness out there. If you are going through times like this, it’s so important to get the people around you who are so close to you, and keep them close.”


Hardcastle agrees with Jack Diamond’s opinion that people accused of such crimes should not be named publicly unless they are found guilty. The same anonymity as his accuser, he says, would have spared him some of the torment he endured.

The case is in the public domain, the charges and subsequent outcome reported. Hardcastle would prefer if all mention of it was wiped from the internet but also acknowledges that his innocence is now on the record. “Anyone who doubted me now knows the truth,” he says.

Was he concerned who would and would not believe him, as he waited for the trial? “Not people who really knew me, but those on the outside, who knew of me…yeah, I doubted that all the time. ‘Are people looking at me differently, do they believe me?’

“After all of this, I’m still the same guy. I don’t think any less of myself. I wouldn’t say I look at myself any differently in the mirror. I’m still the same guy I was when I was a kid – nice, friendly, approachable. Just someone who’s been through a bit of heartache.”

About the only time Hardcastle is reluctant to talk is when I ask how he feels, now, about his accuser. “I think if I said something I’d get myself in trouble. I’m not going to answer that.”

He is, though, more comfortable talking about the legacy of what he has been through, how it has shaped and educated him. “Looking back, I take the positives of how strong I was mentally, going through all that stuff. There were negatives too – how I let myself go at times.

“Not everyone will go through their lifetime with anything like this. They’ll just cruise through. I’m not saying what’s happened is a good thing, but it’s made me man up massively.

“From a mental health side, at the time it was awful. Now, I can realise it’s made me a stronger person. It’s made me deal with my dark days a little bit better.”

The Bolton News: Hardcastle is now moving on with his life after being cleared of all charges in DecemberHardcastle is now moving on with his life after being cleared of all charges in December (Image: The Mail)

Hardcastle says others who find themselves in similar situations should be aware of certain things. “The best advice I can give is if you take a girl home on a night out, get consent in writing – get a text, or something on video, anything you can use to show it was consensual.

“If it’s just word of mouth, it’s your word against hers. In my situation, she did consent, but if I’d got something in writing it wouldn’t have got as far as it did. You just don’t think those accusations are going to be there…”

Hardcastle says he is not one for looking too far forward, preferring to live life “day by day”, which seems understandable given what he has endured in his early twenties. He became a father last year and, at the right time, many years from now he plans to sit Bobby down and explain everything.

“I’d rather it comes from me, and that I tell him the truth,” he says. “He will get told everything I’ve been through, and what he needs to do.

“He’s not going through what I’ve been through. It’s been too tough. And as a parent, I couldn’t do what my mum’s done, what she’s had to deal with. I need to get the message into him, when he’s old enough to do all that kind of stuff – just to be very careful in what you’re doing.”

He takes a last sip of water, and weighs his last words as carefully as the others. “I want him to be proud of me, too.”