| 11.5°C Belfast

Ex-footballer Flitcroft 'suspects hacking'

A former Premiership footballer who tried to stop a tabloid paper publishing details of his adultery suggested today that journalists may have hacked his phone.

Ex-Blackburn Rovers captain Garry Flitcroft took out an injunction in April 2001 to prevent the People newspaper running a "kiss and tell" story about a brief affair.

This was overturned by the Court of Appeal in early 2002, leading to public humiliation for the married father when his name was finally disclosed.

Flitcroft told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards today that he "strongly suspected" that reporters hacked his phone to discover details of a second woman with whom he had an affair.

But he admitted he had no firm evidence that his voicemail messages were illegally intercepted.

He told the inquiry: "That is just speculation. I have no evidence at all. It just seems a massive coincidence that the same newspaper gets two girls in the space of a couple of months."

Flitcroft, who is now manager of Northern Premier League side Chorley FC, said he had an "intimate relationship" with the first woman, whom he saw "three or four times".

He claimed that she contacted him threatening to go to the press if he did not give her £3,000 for a breast enlargement operation, which he refused.

The former footballer said the woman sent an envelope to his mother's house containing copies of text messages he had sent her and details of precisely when they went to a hotel together.

Flitcroft said he showed the envelope to the solicitor of the Professional Footballers' Association, and as a result took out the injunction against the People.

Explaining why he resorted to legal action, he said: "I hold my hands up and I know I did wrong, but nobody's perfect and at the end of the day I had a wife and a kid, and I had a very close family, and I did not want it to get out to them."

The inquiry heard that the People was edited at the time by Neil Wallis, who went on to become executive editor of the News of the World.

Flitcroft said the People printed hints about his identity, such as that he played for an "unfashionable" club in the North West, before the injunction was overturned.

The Bolton-born father-of-three, who is now separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend, Sarah Lancashire, said he was subsequently contacted by the second woman, who demanded £5,000 in return for not selling her story to the People.

He said he was surprised by this because the first woman lived in Chester and the second in Stockport, and they did not know each other.

"I strongly suspect that my phone was hacked by journalists and as a result the second woman was contacted, and asked to sell her story to the papers," he said in a statement to the inquiry.

Carine Patry Hoskins, counsel to the inquiry, said both women denied blackmailing Flitcroft.

Before the injunction was lifted, Flitcroft said rumours circulated that it was him and he was teased in the dressing room about it.

Once the injunction was lifted, his solicitor called him and warned him to "get out of the house", he said.

Before Flitcroft had a chance to tell his wife Karen about the affair, a reporter from the Daily Mail rang his buzzer and he took her out for a drive to tell her about it.

"She was angry and started crying - she hit me in the chest, she was devastated," he said.

The couple and their young son had to leave their family home for a time to avoid the press attention.

The strain of the revelation and the media attention were contributing factors to the couple splitting up, he said.

"Me and Karen were getting on as best we could for the little 'un but it finally did not work and I ended up moving out," he added.

His son has been teased at school because of the revelations and has been forced to listen to negative chants from the terraces about his father - even recently.

"Your lad is coming to watch you play football and are at an age when they know what's going on," he said.

"That is just unfair."

He said his estranged wife has "always been a private person", adding: "She has done nothing wrong, she should not have to deal with all of this."

He described how he had photographers and reporters camped out on his doorstep and at one stage even had a helicopter taking photos above his home.

The manager said they were sending a message to him "never to mess with the press again".

"I do not think I was a high-profile player," he said.

"The Sunday People printed the story because it was in the 'public interest'. At the end of the day, it was not in the public interest. If I had been done for match-fixing or taking cocaine then it is in the public interest."

Members of the press contacted his wife's parents - which was distressing for her father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, Flitcroft told the hearing.

The effect of the revelations may also have contributed to his own father's suicide in 2008, he added.

His father, who suffered from anxiety and depression, attended every single one of his matches - home or away - since he started playing when he was seven.

However he stopped attending when the taunting from the terraces got too bad - very soon after the injunction was lifted, the hearing was told.

"It affected him a lot," Flitcroft added.

"We took something out of his life that he loved doing.

"I would say that, over the years, his depression got worse because he was not watching me play football."

Flitcroft said that, in 2005, a woman who had delivered exercise bikes to Blackburn Rovers was contacted by a journalist who claimed to know she was engaged in an extra-marital affair with Flitcroft.

But he had never met the woman, the hearing was told.

His solicitor contacted the woman, who told him that the reporter had contacted her mobile phone provider to see if Flitcroft's phone number came up on her phone records.

"It shows they were still digging for information three or four years after I had been done," he said.

Belfast Telegraph