A FORMER Blackburn Rovers and Accrington Stanley player who stole almost £17,000 when he got in a financial mess has left court a free man.

David Hargreaves, 48, was spared jail after a judge described his case as 'special' and added he did not think he was being inconsistent with his public duty in sparing the defendant.

Hargreaves, who ran a business collecting rents and housing benefits on behalf of landlords, hung his head in the dock as Recorder Anthony Sander told him the case was particularly serious as he had committed a double breach of trust.

Hargreaves, of Barnes Street, Clayton-le-Moors, had been convicted by a jury on three counts of theft of rent money totalling just under £6,000.

He later admitted theft of housing benefit to the tune of £11,000, between November 1999 and September 2000. Hargreaves, who had no previous convictions, was given 200 hours community punishment.

He played for Accrington Stanley in the 1970s and became their highest scorer after coming through the ranks of the team's youth scheme.

He also played for Blackburn Rovers in 1977 and 1978.

Burnley Crown Court heard how his offences were bound to be discovered, as he kept accurate business records.

Victim, landlord Neil Ainsworth, had at first been prepared to treat the missing cash as a civil debt, but Hargreaves was made bankrupt when it could not be recovered.

If the defendant had been able to repay the money the matter would have gone no further, but Mr Ainsworth called in the police when Hargreaves could not raise the cash, the court heard.

Recorder Sander, who had read references on Hargreaves's behalf, said the defendant, who now devoted time voluntarily to the Asian Youth Sports Academy, had had a character of which he could justifiably be proud. That had now been lost but his friends had not deserted him and the defendant remained in work.

The court was told the defendant, who ran Accrington Accommodation Agency, did not set out to defraud Mr Ainsworth.

He had operated his business properly for a number of years, but in 1998 got rid of his secretary and accountant. He was then unable to manage the business and got himself into financial problems.

The easiest way to try and sort them was to use rent money from the previous month to pay his debts, in the hope something would turn up -- or that a landlord would be prepared to accept late payment.