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 Brom 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".
The main targets of the surveillance by the North West Regional Crime Squad between September and October 2010 were career criminals Craig Bulger and Mark Cain - who shot a security guard several times at a Tesco branch in Preston.
Bulger, 51, had been tracked to the same scrapyard where Wallwork was based.
In June, Cain, 48, of Ashfield Rise, Catterall, and Bulger, of Scotland Hall Road, Newton Heath, were both given indeterminate sentences with minimum terms of more than seven years after admitting armed robbery and possessing firearms.
Today, Sarah Johnston, prosecuting, said the VW Touran worth £12,340 had been stolen from an address in Worsley in March 2010, the BMW worth £15,000 in a burglary in Wigan in September 2010, and the Mazda worth £16,000 was stolen from a compound at Nidd Vale garage in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, later the same month.
The driving licence of the BMW driver was later found at Wallwork's home address, along with a disabled badge belonging to the motorist's mother.
Wallwork made no comment when interviewed on the matters by detectives.
Judge Newell said he had received a number of references on the defendant's behalf and accepted his footballing career regretfully came to an end with a criminal act in which he played no part.
But he added: "You are a man who had employment, who had a stable upbringing and knew well how to behave yourself in public and you let yourself down at the end of 2010.
"I am afraid I am not able to accede to the request to suspend sentence."
Wallwork received 15 months concurrently on each of the three counts.