UNDERCOVER: Policeman James Bannon infiltrated a group of football hooligans in the 1980s
BACK in the late Eighties, James Bannon infiltrated an infamous group of football hooligans as part of a covert police sting. As the World Cup kicks off he tells us what turns normal men into violent louts and why he’s not afraid to speak out about his experience.
James Bannon was just an eager 21-year-old police officer when he was selected to infiltrate Millwall Bushwackers, a violent group of football hooligans.
The year was 1987 and brutal disorder was quickly becoming an epidemic at football matches across Britain.
The police and Conservative government at the time decided to take action after the 1985 Kenilworth Road riot, which saw violent clashes between Luton FC and Milwall FC aired on television.
James, now 48, reflects back on the moment he was chosen for the covert operation.
“I felt pretty elated. To work as a fully-fledged undercover police officer is a lot of kudos. To get that opportunity at 21 is pretty unheard of. At the time I was pretty proud of the fact that I’d been chosen to do that.”
Young James quickly had to learn how to become “part of the gang”. He and the three officers on the project began visiting pubs in London that were notorious hotspots for Millwall FC hooligans and they slowly became chummy with the bar staff and regulars.
“When there was a game on, and everyone looked to see who we were, the bar staff knew us. We had an advantage because we were being accepted by the people who worked in the pub. That helped.
“For me I was loud and tried to be quite good fun and always had a fair amount of money on me to buy people a drink.”
The friendships and relationships were forged from there.
“Firstly we spoke with people we’d ordinarily be attracted to. We were fortunate that we were able to associate ourselves with three people who weren’t top level hooligans. We gained a level of acceptance because of them.”
James says a “normal day” for a football hooligan would begin at 12.30pm when all they’d all meet in the pub and drink. They’d then go to the ground to watch the match, before coming out and trying to find members of the opposing team.
They “may or may not have a fight” before returning to the pub for the reminder of Saturday night.
Did he ever fight?
“I was an undercover police officer infiltrating football hooligans. I need to be vocal, loud and I need everyone there to feel comfortable around me.
“There were times when I had to fight alongside the people with me. The difference is, what I never did, was instigate anything to start that. We were always reactionary rather than the other way around.”
During his two years as part of the gang he says he saw “sickening levels of violence”.
James recalls a time when a Millwall hooligan “viciously beat” a Crystal Palace fan to the ground and kicked him in the head, completely unprovoked on a packed train, in front of his wife and children.
It’s a times like that in which he felt he had to assess his “moral compass” and release that it’s part of the job.”It’s a word that’s branded around quite loosely now but you need to have a very, very, very good moral compass. It’s easy to justify anything you do because of the role you undertake.
Book releasesd by Bannon
“The ability of any undercover police officer is the fact that he can keep his eye and mind on the fact it’s a job not a lifestyle. For me, and the three guys that I worked with, we all managed to hold on to that handle.”
To be an undercover police officer he says you need to be “really good at lying”, have an “exceptionally good memory” and a “large set of bollocks”.
Thanks to the harrowing things he saw and the situations he found himself in James admits he “feared for his life every day”.
He also noticed his physical appearance dramatically changing.
“I went from 11 and a half stone and being very fit at the start of the operation to 15 stone, having pretty long hair, two earrings, and looking 35 years old.”I didn’t really drink at all before I started the operation and football hooligans do a lot of that. I was eating at all the wrong times, too.”
A question he gets asked a lot is what turns people into football hooligans?
“It is a form of drug. The adrenaline is huge, the camaraderie, the banter, the belonging, all of that plays a part in it.
“Absolutely without question is not all football hooligans are shaven headed lunatics who want to run around having a fight. The people we infiltrated were bright, intelligent, family guys. It’s just that when Saturday came there was a switch in their head that flicked.”
Despite successfully becoming “one of them” and being able to identify brutal hooligans, the police closed the operation during a two minute phone call.
“They rang and said, ‘The operation is now concluded. You are not allowed to associate with your targets or go to Millwall Football Club again. No one is going to be arrested because it isn’t deemed to be in the public interest. You will all return to uniform after rehabilitation for six months. Thank you.” That was it.”
There was a “smattering of arrests” but no public trial.
“Two years of my life was concluded on a two minute phone call. Then we had to go back into uniform and through a period of rehabilitation.
“We were really good at what we did. We worked really hard and compiled a dossier of evidence. At that time they felt it wasn’t in the public interest to pursue a public trial.”
After losing faith in the police James left and now works as an actor and writer. He tours the UK with his remarkable story and has even had former hooligans he knew come and watch him.
“I had a couple of the guys that I operated with in the hooligan side who came to see the show. They have been how I expected them to be, very eloquent about what they thought. I’m not going to be their best friend but one of the guys said there’s a mutual respect there for what I did.
“I managed to convince them while in the knowledge that if I got caught it would not have been good. It was 25 years ago. That’s one of the reasons I never wrote the book originally because it was still quite raw.
“Nobody was arrested, without a shadow of a doubt if there had been a criminal trial for what I did, there was no way in the world I would have written the book.”
Running with the Firm, My Double Life As An Undercover Hooligan By James Bannon, published by Ebury Press is out now, priced £7.99 (paperback) and available in all good book stores. @RunningWithTheF
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