The former Manchester United midfielder Ronnie Wallwork has been jailed for 15 months for selling on parts from stolen high-performance cars.
Police stumbled upon the illegal vehicle-breaking operation of Wallwork, 34, while investigating a string of unconnected armed robberies across Lancashire.
Wallwork, from Failsworth, Manchester, was working out of a rented scrapyard unit in Newton Heath when he was arrested last November.
It emerged he had sold a Volkswagen Touran engine and parts from a BMW 318i on eBay, while he was observed driving a Mazda Furano into the scrapyard three days after it was stolen from a car dealer. The three stolen vehicles he was linked to were worth more than £43,000 in total, Preston Crown Court heard.
He pleaded guilty to three counts of handling stolen goods at an earlier hearing. Sentencing him, Judge Simon Newell said he could not agree with the defence barrister's request to impose a suspended jail term.
He said: "These were high-value items that were stolen. It seems to me they were taken in a professional and sophisticated way. It also seems clear to me that they were taken to go into the black market either to be sold on or broken down and sold on.
"You provided the facility for that to happen. There was an element of organisation and sophistication in what went on."
Wearing a grey suit, Wallwork stared ahead blankly before he was led to the cells from the dock.
Wallwork, who represented England at under-20 level, joined United as a trainee in 1993 but struggled to command a first-team place and was loaned to a number of clubs before he joined West Bromwich Albion in 2002.
Loan periods at Bradford, Barnsley and Huddersfield followed before he moved to Sheffield Wednesday in 2008 where he made just seven appearances.
Rachel Woods, defending, said: "There was no evidence to suggest that the defendant was responsible for the organised thefts of the vehicles or had any input in that. These are not thefts to order. He was not using the garage to ring the vehicles through.
"He had clearly succumbed to temptation in a stage of his life when his finances had taken a dramatic turn for the worse."
She said that, until relatively recently, Wallwork had a "promising career" as a professional footballer but it was "tragically cut short" when he was the victim of a serious assault about four years ago.
Miss Woods said he nearly lost his life in the bar stabbing in which he suffered wounds to the back and stomach – for which his assailant received a five-and-a-half-year jail sentence.
"Mr Wallwork tried as best as he could to regain full fitness and resume his career but he was not able to fulfil the potential he had previously shown," she said. It sadly led to the termination of his career, she added. "Thereafter he has struggled to find a proper path to continue with his life," she said.
Wallwork had lost a lot of money in two failed businesses before he set up the initially legitimate concern from the 10 Arches scrapyard.
"By the end of 2010 he succumbed to temptation by purchasing three stolen cars which, in due course, were stripped and various items were sold on for a financial benefit," said Miss Woods.
Since admitting his crimes he had taken advantage of various services offered to him by the Professional Footballers' Association and had undergone counselling from which he had benefited.
She argued that it would not serve the public interest to jail a man of previous good character for what she said should be treated as "one-off offences".
From one of United's past players to undoubtedly one for the future, Phil Jones, who says he is more than happy to be shuffled around the side if it means the team keeps on winning.
The 19-year-old summer signing from Blackburn Rovers has produced some impressive performances this season despite being asked to play on the right or in the centre of defence and also in midfield.
"I enjoy playing anywhere. I enjoy playing football, so wherever I am asked to play I will play," he said. "I don't think it really matters at the moment that I am cementing a spot in a certain position because I am still young. Hopefully, as my career progresses that will happen."
Jones scored his first goal for the club in the weekend's 1-0 win at Aston Villa. "I'm delighted to score but it wasn't about the goal. It was about three points and I thought the lads did well."