Two ex-professional footballers are facing jail for scamming £5 million from schools and colleges through a bogus sports leadership scheme.
Former Wales international Mark Aizlewood, 57, and Paul Sugrue, 56 – whose past clubs include Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City – promised to help struggling youngsters gain an NVQ in activity leadership.
They told colleges across the country they would provide full-time training in football coaching as well as work experience and a £95 weekly stipend to 3,800 students.
On Monday, Aizlewood was convicted of one count and Sugrue of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation by offering the non-existent apprenticeships through their firm Luis Michael Training Ltd at Southwark Crown Court in London.
Aizlewood was also acquitted of a second court of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.
The pair – along with fellow directors Keith Williams, 45, and Christopher Martin, 53 – submitted false accounts to colleges to persuade them to do business with the firm.
They promised the colleges it was the perfect opportunity for “NEETs”, or youngsters not in employment, education or training, to gain a qualification.
Williams was also convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.
Football coach Jack Harper, 30, was convicted of fraud and using a false instrument. He was acquitted of another count of conspiracy to commit false representation.
Martin admitted two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation ahead of trial, along with Stephen Gooding, 53, who admitted one charge.
The jury of five women and seven men reached verdicts after more than 24 hours of deliberation.
Judge Michael Tomlinson described the case as “very serious” and adjourned sentencing until February 26.
The company enrolled suitable apprentices to claim money from the colleges, which in turn received funding from the Government-run Learning and Skills Council (LSC), later renamed the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).
Gooding and Harper, who were employed in the business, helped funnel new learners into the scheme.
Some of the bogus students were sourced from a summer football camp run by Harper, who secretly enrolled students to apprenticeships without their knowledge or consent.
LM Training even got sixth formers on work experience in its office to complete tests on behalf of learners, to make it seem like they had the minimum level of maths and English competency.
The work experience students were told they were just practice papers.
When the scam unravelled, the Skills Funding Agency demanded its money back, leaving large deficits in the budgets of many schools.
Aizlewood denied any wrongdoing, telling the jury he had been preoccupied by his late wife’s spiralling mental health problems before her suicide in June last year.
He told the court he had neither the “time or inclination” to carry out such a complex fraud during the period.
The former player, who was capped 39 times for his country and made more than 500 appearances in the football league, described how his wife, Penelope, was suffering from alcohol and drug problems, as well as depression.
Aizlewood said: “I’m a director of a company, but, and it’s a big but, my main thought pattern was what I have to do – I have to get done quickly and get back because of the situation there.”
He continued: “It just made Luis Michael, in many ways, of no significance. I had bigger battles to fight and therefore, yes I had to do my job and do my duties, but I’m not so focused on it.”
His barrister, Nigel Lambert QC, said to Aizlewood: “The allegation is you were involved in a criminal conspiracy during this time and I just want to ask, what really was your mental attitude of that time, what really you were focusing on?”
He replied: “On my family. A, I didn’t have the inclination and B, I didn’t have the time.”
At the height of his career in the late 1980s, Aizlewood commanded a transfer fee of £250,000 – the record was £1 million at the time – and Arsenal and England legend Ian Wright has said Aizlewood’s name was the first in his autograph book.
Aizlewood, from Aberdare, Mid Glamorgan, Sugrue, from Cardiff, Williams, from Cemaes Bay, Anglesey, Harper, of Southport, Merseyside, Martin, from Catmore, in West Berkshire, and Gooding, from of Bridgwater, Somerset, were released on bail.