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Paul Sugrue (left) and Mark Aizlewood arriving at court

Former professional footballers and two other men have been found guilty of fraud charges after taking £5m in a fake apprenticeship scheme.

Ex-Wales defender Mark Aizlewood, 57, and former Cardiff City player, Paul Sugrue, 56, invented false players to claim the money.

Fellow director Keith Williams, 45, from Anglesey, and Jack Harper, 30, of Merseyside, also took part in the scam.

They denied the charges during a four-month trial at Southwark Crown Court.

Two men – Christopher Martin, 53, of Catmore, West Berkshire, and Stephen Gooding, 53, from Bridgwater, Somerset – previously admitted their part in the youth training scheme fraud.

Judge Michael Tomlinson described the case as “very serious” and adjourned sentencing until 26 February, releasing all the men on bail.

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Serious Fraud Office

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The four directors of Luis Michael Training: Mark Aizlewood, Paul Sugrue, Chris Martin and Keith Williams

  • Mark Aizlewood faced two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation. He was convicted of one count but cleared of the other
  • Paul Sugrue was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation
  • Keith Williams was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation
  • Jack Harper was found guilty of fraud and using a false instrument. He was not guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation
  • Christopher Martin admitted two charges of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation before the trial
  • Stephen Gooding admitted one charge of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation

The court heard Aizlewood, of Aberdare, who won 39 caps for Wales, and Sugrue, from Cardiff, set up Luis Michael Training Ltd as a football-based apprenticeship scheme with Williams and Martin.

Between 2009 and 2011, they told colleges across the country they would provide full-time training in football coaching as well as work experience and a £95 weekly salary to 3,800 students.

The court heard for every apprentice enrolled – many of them deemed to be vulnerable – the defendants claimed money provided by the UK government.

But in reality, hundreds of the students on their books did not even exist, many lived at the opposite end of the country from the training scheme, while others were doing just two to three hours of study a week.

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Aizlewood has now been dropped as Carmarthen Town’s manager

The men were charged after a whistleblower alerted Gwent Police in November 2011 and the Serious Fraud Office spent more than four years collecting 5.2 million pieces of evidence and interviewing 600 people.

Investigations found that between October 2009 and December 2010, Sugrue pocketed £516,000, Aizlewood £424,000, Gooding £448,000, Harper £311,000, Williams £295,000 and Martin £249,000.

The SFO said that money should have gone towards young apprentices “who were almost all very vulnerable young people because they were not in employment, education or training”.

“They should have been doing the learning full time, normally 30 hours a week, but in most cases it was more like two or three,” it said in a statement after the verdicts.

“Many of them were living the dream thinking they would be coaches for clubs like Manchester City and gain an NVQ – but it was a farce.

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Mark Aizlewood’s former clubs include Cardiff City, Bristol City, Leeds United and Charlton Athletic

“As an ex-international footballer, Mark Aizlewood knew the industry and how the system worked and his gravitas helped the company get in with colleges, football clubs and learners.

“As a result of the failure of Luis Michael Training, many of the learners were having trouble putting food on the table for their families.

“They then had to attend court and were nervous and scared of what that meant. Instead of transforming their futures, this ordeal had made many of them even more vulnerable.”

Aizlewood’s former clubs include Cardiff City, Bristol City, Leeds and Charlton.

More recently he has been managing Carmarthen Town. After the court case, the club terminated his contract.

“We would like to stress that the club was unaware of the deception and we played no part in the investigation,” it added in a statement.