|MELANIE Hill is raising her game as she tries to rebuild her shattered life after the break-up of her marriage to soccer nut Sean Bean.
She is throwing herself into the role of her life - on the football field.
The former Bread star has trained vigorously for her part as a footballer in a new BBC TV series, Playing The Field. It's her first major role since she split with screen heart-throb Sean almost two years ago.
There is deep irony in her casting - for when her marriage broke up it was put about that football was to blame.
Sean's obsession with Sheffield United was widely cited as one of the reasons for the split, but now the 35-year-old actress says the truth was much more complex.
"Marriages do not break up because somebody loves football," she says. "I would hope that people have the sense to realise that."
Melanie and Sean were together for almost 15 years, and she is still recovering from the trauma of leaving him.
"I believe in old-fashioned values - the family, marriage and fidelity," she says. "When families break up, it's the end of your dream."
Melanie moved out of the luxurious pounds 500,000 house in Totteridge, North London, which she and Sean had bought only months earlier - largely with the proceeds of the Sharpe star's success in big movies GoldenEye and Patriot Games.
Sean had been linked with other women, including a 21-year-old barmaid. And not long afterwards, his Sharpe co-star Abigail Cruttenden, 22 - who played his wife in the swashbuckling series - moved in with him.
Melanie, who now lives in nearby Finchley with their daughters, Lorna, nine, and Molly, five, tries to be cheerfully practical about her future, but cannot hide her hurt.
"I always thought that whatever happened, the most important thing was that Sean and I were a team," she says. "But the love that we had has changed."
They met at drama school when she was 20, and a virgin.
"I do believe that is the ideal way to go into a marriage, and it just happened to be my circumstances," she says.
"As a teenager, I had a lot of pressure from friends asking when I was going to have it off with a boy. But I wasn't in love. I wanted to wait."
AS WELL as being her first love, Sean was her only love - certainly until their marriage broke up.
He swept her off her feet, and when she talks about him you can see how painful it still is. But she remains loyal to the 39-year-old actor.
"Sean has always been a good father," she says. "He sees a great deal of the children still - he adores them.
"When you have two children, you have to take a positive attitude. I have always been a positive person.
"When something is out of your hands you mustn't dwell on it. You just have to get on with things the best you can. I'm working, and I have my children."
She pauses and then goes on, as if intent on sounding convincing.
"I am happy with myself. I absolutely love the house where we live now. It's a beautiful house. I adore it. It's accessible to all the parks and there's lots of lovely walks to take the children on."
In Playing The Field - which reaches our screens in March - Melanie is Rita, a talented player who is struggling with her fitness and is possibly past her best.
Rita's husband is called in to manage the all-woman team - and she is not entirely happy about it.
"Rita's got two children," she says. "She has been married before to somebody who is the father of her eldest child and who dumped her and ran off with a younger woman, and she's fearful of it happening again.
"She's quite possessive of her husband and they are very much in love with each other. So this jealousy is completely unfounded, but it's something she can't quite control."
Melanie feels well suited to the part, for reasons which throw fresh light on her relationship with Sean - who was once quoted as saying: "Scoring a goal for Sheffield would be better than sex."
THAT was at about the time Melanie was reportedly grumbling that when he came home from work all he ever wanted to do was watch football.
Not so, she says now.
"Sean is a very fanatical supporter, but he gets a lot back from the game and I never saw anything wrong in that," she insists.
"He works hard, and I used to go with him to lots of games. All that stuff about us clashing over football got completely blown up and misquoted.
"I am still uncomfortable even talking about it. It's nobody else's business, and we have always been very private people."
Melanie, the daughter of a soldier and granddaughter of a Sunderland miner, is an enthusiastic football fan herself.
"I like football a lot and always have done. I think it's exciting, and doing Playing The Field has made me get into it even more.
"I'm a Sheffield United supporter because of Sean, and I'm a Sunderland supporter because that's where I come from.
"My mum and my grandad used to take me to matches - my father wasn't interested. They took a little stool for me so that I could see.
"I more or less stopped going when I came to London, but I have always checked on how they are doing. In Sunderland it's always been very important. Last season they went down from the Premiership and I'm gutted.
"It's really bad for the town, too. So much industry has been shut down there. The football team gives the town a sense of pride and loyalty.
"My mother was staying with me when the news came through. She went straight up to her bedroom and didn't come out for two hours. She was devastated. She's every bit as fanatical as Sean. I remember when I was a girl and Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973.
"My mother went all on her own, and she bought this red plastic mac and came home singing: `We've won the Cup.'"
AS BEFITS a genuine fan, Melanie was determined to be convincing in Playing The Field.
So she went into serious training, although she did not quite manage to give up smoking - she has been trying to for years.
"We did two weeks of running, general fitness and basic ball training before filming began, and the cigarettes are going at any moment - honest," she says as she determinedly stubs one out.
"As soon as I knew I had got the part I went out with a football and started kicking it about, just to get the feel of it. We have been trained by a girl from the Doncaster Belles and we've been watching videos.
"I had no idea there were so many women's football clubs in the country - about 600, I believe.
"Women's football was really big after the First World War, until the FA dismantled it - allegedly because it was taking attention away from the men's game."
When Melanie is not filming she takes regular exercise. "I try to ride my bike two or three times a week and I have an exercise routine of 100 sit-ups." she says. "Then I take a little rest, then 100 more. It takes about 15 minutes.
"But when I'm working the whole thing is inclined to go to the wall. I come home, put on the telly, and then fall asleep looking at the lines I've got to learn for the next day."
Playing The Field, written by Kay Mellor, will be a good showcase for Melanie. The intelligent, lively redhead is an actress with a wide range - probably greater than ex-husband Sean's.
Her role as zany Aveline in Bread remains probably her most famous. But more recently she showed a grittier side as a Geordie gang boss in Finney with David Morrissey and as Jimmy Nail's beleaguered sister in Crocodile Shoes.
SHE says: "I began with comedy, but my roles seem to have gradually become more serious.
"I loved the Finney role because it showed a woman in an unusual situation. I thought at first that I was being asked to play the gangster's moll.
"And when I learnt I was up for the role of the top gangster, I was hooked.
"The women in Playing The Field are not quite what you might expect, either."
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