Sexual tension, late-night kisses, jealous rages: a real-life drama of footballers' wives (and a physio)

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The Independent Online

An attractive female bodybuilder takes over as the fitness instructor for a First Division football team to the consternation of the players' wives. Her appointment leads to simmering sexual tension, punctuated with jealous spats, bitchiness and a boardroom bust-up.

While the story of Laura Church may mirror the shenanigans of Earls Park FC in the trashy TV hit Footballers' Wives, her ordeal was being replayed yesterday before a more sober-minded audience.

At an employment tribunal in Kent Ms Church began her claim that she had been unfairly dismissed - and sexually discriminated against - by Gillingham FC after an uprising of players' wives concerned at her closeness to their men.

Ms Church said her time at the club was marked by resentment from the players' wives. She had been threatened at a funeral, had a foreign trip suddenly cancelled, and had a hysterical reaction to a late-night message to a player.

Ms Church, 40, had texted Chris Hope after Gillingham demolished Canvey Island 7-0 in a pre-season friendly. "Well done, brill game, brilliant player," she recalled telling the defender. Mr Hope's wife, Lisa, was so angered by the text that she stopped talking to him.

Within five weeks of starting her job last summer Ms Church was told by Gillingham's chairman, Paul Scally, that her career at the club was over. She told the tribunal: "Paul said to me I'm going to have to let you go. I'm getting too much grief from the wives and the text message is causing a lot of problems.

"I asked to meet the wives and he refused, saying they would scratch my eyes out. He said I would have to go before the first home game because if the wives saw what I looked like the shit would hit the fan."

She claimed that on the day she was sacked the club's manager, Andy Hessenthaler, told her: "I'm sorry Laura. You have done a very good job. My wife has been in my ear from day one. When she saw how you looked she said you had no chance. This is the football world and they are all the same. I know you are a professional and not like all the wives."

Ms Church's employment at the club started promisingly on 3 July last year, following an introduction from Mr Hope and another player, the first team goalkeeper, Jason Brown.

Ms Church, of Hempstead, Kent, had trained Olympic athletes and said she had been praised by the players for improving their fitness with special diet plans. But she got a taste of future problems, she claimed, during an early meeting with the chairman when he said there was "bound to be a lot of jealousy" because of her looks.

During her first week, she said, she was told she would be accompanying the team on a pre-season trip to France but three days before the departure date, she was told she would not be going. Ms Church told the tribunal: "I was later told by Andy Hessenthaler and Paul Scally that I was not allowed to go because some of the wives had not wanted me to go because I would be staying at the same hotels as their husbands.

She claimed she had been ignored at a funeral by many of the players' partners and that one had threatened to get her thrown out of the club.

After the game with Canvey Island, she said, the atmosphere among the players was "buzzing" and she had simply wanted to boost Mr Hope's confidence by telling him how well he had performed.

"When I texted Chris I did not realise how late it was," she said. "I wanted Chris to know how well he had played as I knew it would boost his confidence. I did not know his wife would have a problem with it. She had never mentioned anything before even though I had had one-to-one sessions with Mr Hope.

"I knew it was late but I assumed his phone would be off and that he would have got the text in the morning. In the athletic world we text each other from all over the world and at all times of day and night. It is completely normal."

However, Mrs Hope did not believe the message was normal and booted her husband out of the bedroom.

At 9.30am the next day Ms Church received a telephone call from Mrs Hope, who she said slammed down the phone with the message: "Chris had a big enough ego as it was without you boosting his confidence."

At the tribunal, Mr Hope, who has two children, said the message, received at 12.10am, had said: "Well done, great game, you are a brilliant player xxx."

"The fact that there were three kisses in it upset my wife greatly. We had a major argument and I was thrown out of the marital bedroom. She was still not speaking to me in the morning." The footballer added: "My wife gave Laura a piece of her mind the next morning."

The defender returned home after training and found that his wife had discovered another message from Ms Church. "It was along the lines of how dare you speak to me like that. It was the tone that was abusive. It was quite heated. We started realising that this was getting out of hand.'"

Mr Scally told the hearing that he terminated Ms Church's contract because she had behaved inappropriately by sending the message. He denied making comments to Ms Church about her looks, explaining that at the time he was grieving the loss of his son. "There is no female, or wife or partner that has any influence on the decisions I make at the club. Wives would find it laughable." He added: "It's nonsense that I said she was a beautiful woman."

Ms Church's case was backed by a former Gillingham player, Ty Gooden, who she had worked with on an injury. He attacked what he described as "cliques" in the club made up of particular footballers' wives. He told the tribunal: "There were a number of cliques concerning the wives and if you were not in those cliques they would not give you the time of day." The tribunal will make a ruling on 10 March.