Mark Aizlewood worked alongside ex-Manchester City forward Paul Sugrue to run a false scheme promising to help struggling youngsters gain apprenticeships in activity leadership by running full-time football coaching training courses at colleges across the UK.
Their company, Luis Michael Training Ltd, also offered work experience placements and a weekly stipend of £95 to 3,800 students.
It was pitched as the perfect opportunity for youngsters not in employment or education to gain a qualification.
But in reality, hundreds of students who the company claimed to have on its books did not exist. Many lived at the opposite end of the country from the scheme and others only did a few hours of study per week.
With no credible record with which to promote the scheme, false accounts were submitted to schools and colleges to persuade them to do business.
During a sentencing hearing on Monday, Southwark Crown Court heard how the scheme had involved “eye-watering sums of Government money” through the Skills Funding Agency, which supports colleges and employers provide skills training.
The money secured was demanded back when the scam unravelled and left huge deficits in the budgets of many schools.
Aizlewood, who played as a defender and captained Charlton Athletic in the 1980s, had denied any wrongdoing.
He told the court he did not have the “time or inclination” to carry out such a complex fraud as he had been occupied by the mental health issues endured by his late wife, who took her own life in June last year.
When convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation earlier this month, he was sacked from his role as manager of Welsh Premier League side Carmarthen Town.
Sugrue, whose journeyman career saw him spend the 1989 season playing in Finland, was convicted of two counts of the same offence.
The 57-year-old was sentenced to seven years behind bars, while Aizlewood, 58, was sentenced to six years.
Judge David Tomlinson described their crimes as “shameful exploitation”, adding they had a “serious detrimental effect on colleges of further education”.
Also sentenced on Monday were company directors Keith Williams, 45, from Anglesey, and Christopher Martin, 53, from West Berkshire.
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They were both convicted of two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation, with Williams handed a four-year jail term and Martin imprisoned for five years and three months.
Football coach Jack Harper, 30, from Southport, was sentenced to 18 months after being convicted of fraud and using a false instrument, while Stephen Gooding, 53, from Somerset, was sentenced to 20 months after admitting one count of fraud by false representation.