‘I went undercover as a football hooligan’

JAMES Bannon reveals the moral dilemmas he faced when he went undercover as a football hooligan
James Bannon. Picture: ContributedJames Bannon. Picture: Contributed
James Bannon. Picture: Contributed

WHEN you sweat blood and tears for a couple of years on any kind of project, the least you can expect is a handsome reward. In the late 1980s, a 21-year-old police officer called James Bannon put himself directly into the firing line by infiltrating a hardcore group of football thugs who followed Millwall, yet his sacrifices appeared to have been for nothing. No arrests were made and Bannon was soon to leave the force and pursue alternative careers. The latest of these, however, involves him putting his story on stage on the back of his bestselling book, Running With The Firm, so his experiences have in fact turned out to be very valuable.

“In the eyes of the public, it was a complete waste of time and resources, though we did manage to stop serious disorder,” insists Bannon, who is appearing at the Tron in Glasgow this week as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival. In the course of his duties, he had not only developed the look of a typical hooligan but he acted like one, often leading the charge when rival gangs were a brick’s throw away. To some of his fellow covert officers, Bannon was revelling in the chaos and violence but he simply saw this as being part of his job, and the only way to earn the trust of the ringleaders, and ultimately compile enough evidence to bring them before the courts.

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“It is a justifiable way of policing, but it has to be managed correctly,” he says. “Can you say that what you are doing is for the benefit of everyone else or am I doing things for my own satisfaction? If it’s the latter then that is a big problem. We didn’t have support or senior officers looking over us; what we did have was common sense and morality and a real sense of what we were trying to do, which was to make it safer for people to go and watch football.”

Bringing his story into the public realm is not new to Bannon. In the early 1990s, as he attempted to forge a career as an actor, he worked with playwright Sarah Kane at the Edinburgh Fringe, and got talking to a screenwriter. This led to him penning his story, “40 per cent of which became the cult movie ID. The rest was totally fictionalised.” But now he is in far more control of how he gets his message across. While it may not seem like a natural fit for a comedy festival, there is a certain gallows humour to be enjoyed in Bannon’s descriptions of his own bravado (“youthful exuberance” he calls it) and the camaraderie which even the most heinous of mobs can indulge in.

“It’s mainly about taking people on a journey and to try and understand what it was like to do what I did at the age of 21. I expected audiences to be 20 to 45-year-old guys with lots of posturing and saying ‘come on then, let’s see what you’ve got’. But it hasn’t been that, it’s ranged from 16-year-old girls to 75-year-old couples who have left with more knowledge than they came in with.” n

• James Bannon: Running With The Firm is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wednesday, as part 
of the Glasgow Comedy Festival (www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com)