TWO ex-footballers, along with colleagues, set up 'ghost learners' to steal £5 million of public cash, including hundreds of thousands of pounds from a Hampshire college, a court heard.

Former Wales international Mark Aizlewood, 57, and Paul Sugrue, 56, who played for clubs including Manchester City and Portsmouth, are said to have committed the scam through their business, Luis Michael Training Ltd between 2009 and 2011.

The pair, along with fellow directors Keith Williams, 45, and Christopher Martin, 53, are alleged to have submitted false accounts to colleges to persuade them to do business with the firm – a provider of football-based apprenticeship schemes for young people.

The company then set about enrolling suitable apprentices to claim money from the colleges, which was provided by the Government.

But jurors heard some of the apprentices did not exist, while others received just two to three hours training a week.

The court heard the "overwhelming majority" of LM Training's business was with Sparsholt College.

Prosecutor Alexandra Healy QC told jurors a copy of a fake accounts document was sent to the college in January 2009, which included a misspelling of the word "chartered" in the name of the accountancy firm.

Genuine sales figures of £49,401 had been changed to £449,401, Ms Healy said.

She added: "Whoever has been manipulating the accounts... has had access to the genuine accounts and used them as a platform to create a much larger organisation to persuade Sparsholt that it is an organisation they want to enter into a partnership with."

The court was told how LM Training had allegedly even got children on work experience in its office to complete tests, reviews and comments on behalf of learners and employers.

Ms Healy said LM Training was set up in 2009 to provide apprenticeship training to eligible learners in partnership with colleges.

The colleges had direct contracts with The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), later renamed the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), receiving public funding to educate students.

The prosecutor explained: "In order to persuade colleges to do business with them, they submitted false accounts purporting to show LM Training had a history of trading profitably, when the Crown say they only set up LM Training in 2009.

"Having persuaded the colleges to enter into partnership agreements, the defendants went about purporting to identify, enrol and train apprentices so as to be able to claim the funding from the colleges, and the colleges claimed the public funds from the LSC or the SFA."

Ms Healy said: "A number of the learners that were enrolled were in fact what are called 'ghost learners'.

"They didn't exist, or didn't know their names were being used to claim public funding, or people were getting qualifications in their name."

Aizlewood, from Aberdare, Mid Glamorgan; Sugrue, from Cardiff; and Williams, from Cemaes Bay, Anglesey each deny two counts of conspiracy to commit false representation.

Jack Harper, 30, who began working with LM Training in December 2009, of Southport, Merseyside, is also on trial and denies one charge of conspiracy to commit false representation, an additional count of fraud and one of using a false instrument.

Jurors were told Martin, from Catmore, in West Berkshire, has pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation, while Stephen Gooding, 53, from of Bridgwater, Somerset has admitted one count of the same charge.

The trial at Southwark Crown Court continues.