You could be mistaken for thinking James Bannon’s new firsthand account was yet another hooligan biography, giving graphic detail of a thug’s adventures in and around football matches. However, beneath the menacing cover lies a much more intriguing tale of an undercover police officer who, as part of a team of four, infiltrated Milwall’s notorious ‘Bushwackers’ firm in the late 1980s.
The story itself has already been documented by 1995 film I.D, a brutal re-imagining covering an unidentified firm and anonymous club. However, Bannon’s decision to break his twenty-year silence gives a fresh immediacy to this book.
We follow Bannon as he quickly makes friends with some of The Lions’ ‘top boys’ posing as a painter and decorator from Wandsworth named ‘Jim’. The operation gives a fascinating glimpse into police tactics at the time, with some clubs – including Manchester City – afforded whole undercover squads with high tech surveillance systems to catch hooligans.
It is Jim’s transition from high flying young copper to Milwall hardman which is perhaps most engaging. We follow him as he struggles with his new identity and his guilt over the enjoyment he gets from the adrenaline of the violence and potentially stitching up his mates. There are also questions over whether he is following or leading the violence which are never quite addressed.
Elsewhere the account features a love dilemma, Bannon’s unlikely continuing support of Milwall to this day and plenty of worries over getting discovered. We also get humour, most notably when Jim and several other hardmen attempt to stake out a chemist’s using cans of hairspray.
His potential discovery provides the momentum through the book however, given his status in being able to write it the suspense is limited.
The story ark, being a work of non-fiction, is excusably a little disappointing with little real climax to key issues. Perhaps what is really lacking is the football. A few references to Sheringham here and there don’t really give the flavour of supporting the club and, while clearly not the point of the piece, more colour around the atmosphere in a crowd as the team was promoted to the first division would’ve been welcome.
Moreover, Bannon is often critical of senior management decisions but makes no comment on the historical context of the operation at the height of 1980s hooliganism and a year before the Hillsborough disaster in which the police’s role remains under scrutiny.
Running with the Firm is an entertaining and interesting first-hand account of a key point in British football history. The violence at Milwall’s FA Cup semi-final against Wigan at Wembley in April showed how unfortunately prescient Bannon’s story is but more context and commentary on this could have lifted this to the next level.
Running with the Firm, by James Bannon is published by Ebury Press and is available to buy from all good bookshops priced at £14.99 (hardback) on Amazon, starting at £8.54 for Kindle edition.