A police officer who was tasked with impersonating a football hooligan to expose violent thugs before England played in the 1990 World Cup has told how it was in a new documentary

Undercover cop James Bannon recalls infiltrating Millwall’s Bushwacker ‘company’ ahead of Italia 90

A police officer who was tasked with impersonating a football hooligan to expose violent thugs before England played in the 1990 World Cup has told in a new documentary how it was the “only way” to stop criminals from “throwing the bastards out ” By people’.

James Bannon, 52, spent months infiltrating hooligan groups linked to South London club Millwall during their most violent clashes with bitter rivals West Ham in the late 1980s.

The club’s fans were among the most notorious in English football at the time, with a violent minority organizing into a ‘company’ known as the Bushwackers.

English football in the 1980s had been hit by incidents of fan violence, prompting Margaret Thatcher’s government at the time to take measures to crack down on crime.

English clubs were banned from European competition for five years after hooligans were blamed for the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, in which 39 fans were killed.

Now a new Channel 4 documentary examines the hooliganism crisis the police grappled with in the run-up to Italia 90, when England reached the semi-finals under famous manager Bobby Robson.

Speaking in Italia 90: When football changed forever, Bannon tells how it was his job to be a “convincing football hooligan” in the hope of stopping the worst offenders from traveling to Italy for the World Cup.

The officer posed as a painter and decorator from 1987 onwards, when he was just 21. He admits his deception was “nice” but was the “only way to stop” some “not very nice people” from attacking others.

But on one occasion he had to watch a hooligan beat an innocent Crystal Palace fan on a train in front of his wife and children, and he was unable to intervene because “if we had done that and breached the cover, we were bloody *** ed.’

James Bannon in his guise as painter and decorator Jim Ford

A police officer who was tasked with impersonating a football hooligan to expose violent thugs before England played in the 1990 World Cup has told in a new documentary how it was the “only way” to stop criminals from “throwing the bastards out ” By people’. James Bannon, 52, spent months infiltrating hooligan groups linked to south London club Millwall during their most violent clashes with bitter rivals West Ham in the late 1980s. Right: The officer in the guise of painter and decorator Jim Ford

The police began using undercover officers to gather evidence about the activities of hooligans in 1985.

Officers were planted in groups associated with Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham, Manchester City and Manchester United, as well as Millwall.

“I started in ’87. My job was to be a persuasive football hooligan,” he said.

– As a serving police officer, 21 years old, to have the opportunity to go completely hidden as an undercover police officer, it’s about as good as it gets.

“There are very few people who can actually do it. Because it’s really, really really bloody hard.’

He posed as Jim Ford from Wandsworth, who had a girlfriend and a young child and worked as a painter and decorator.

“We started going to the Millwall pub, in our painting and decorating overalls. It’s a really shady, dodgy thing to do, to go in somewhere and try to convince people that you’re something you’re not, he added.

“When you actually try to gather evidence against them.

Millwall fans were among the most notorious in English football at the time, with a violent minority organizing into a

Millwall fans were among the most notorious in English football at the time, with a violent minority organizing into a ‘company’ known as the Bushwackers. Above: Millwall fans are seen clashing with Luton Town supporters in 1985

On one occasion, Mr Bannon had to watch a hooligan beat an innocent Crystal Palace fan on a train in front of his wife and children, and he was unable to intervene because

At one point, Mr Bannon had to watch a hooligan beat an innocent Crystal Palace fan on a train in front of his wife and children, and he was unable to intervene because “if we had done that and breached the cover, we were bloody *** oath’

Fearing the threat of English hooligans, the Italian authorities at the 1990 World Cup kept fans away from the mainland by hosting England's matches in Sardinia

Fearing the threat of English hooligans, the Italian authorities at the 1990 World Cup kept fans away from the mainland by hosting England’s matches in Sardinia

“But that was the only way to stop people, some really not very nice people beating the shit out of people, that actually some people didn’t want the shit out of them.”

Through a Metropolitan Police operation codenamed Operation Pegasus, Brannon spent months under his assumed name in an attempt to root out criminals.

The police were tasked with stopping hooligans from making it to Italy and further tarnishing English football’s poor international reputation after years of trouble abroad.

‘You’re on a knife’s edge the whole damn time. Because not only have you got the fact that you’ll be fighting with the opposing supporters, you’ve also got the potential for someone to recognize you and boo you.

‘You really, really have to be on your game all the time.

“You have to fully commit to your legend, your cover.”

Police are seen dealing with a fan who caused trouble at a match between Millwall and Arsenal in 1988

Police are seen dealing with a fan who caused trouble at a match between Millwall and Arsenal in 1988

An injured football fan is carried away on a stretcher during a 1978 West Ham v Millwall match at Upton Park after violence marred the match

An injured football fan is carried away on a stretcher during a 1978 West Ham v Millwall match at Upton Park after violence marred the match

Police officers try to control a crowd of Millwall supporters outside Upton Park station after a match against West Ham in 1978. Six police officers were injured and 70 people were arrested after fans clashed in the street after the match, which West Ham won 3-0

Police officers try to control a crowd of Millwall supporters outside Upton Park station after a match against West Ham in 1978. Six police officers were injured and 70 people were arrested after fans clashed in the street after the match, which West Ham won 3-0

A man lies injured on the ground after clashes between rival fans outside Millwall's south London ground before a match against Wes Ham in 1990

A man lies injured on the ground after clashes between rival fans outside Millwall’s south London ground before a match against Wes Ham in 1990

A Liverpool fan is chased by Juventus fans during a brawl before the 1985 European Cup final, when 39 people were killed in the Heysel Stadium disaster

A Liverpool fan is chased by Juventus fans during a brawl before the 1985 European Cup final, when 39 people were killed in the Heysel Stadium disaster

Mr Brannon was on a train with a hooligan he was trying to befriend when the man attacked a Crystal Palace fan who had been sitting opposite them with his wife and two children.

‘This bastard just stood up, walked over and punched this guy in the head. And then started kicking him, he said.

“His kids are screaming and crying. His wife is crying. He’s got a massive cut. His lip is bleeding. And he’s on the floor sobbing.

‘Every sinew in me wanted to jump on this p**k and arrest him. But we couldn’t. If we had done that and broken the cover, we were screwed.’

Mr Brannon was also present when Millwall fans clashed with West Ham rivals at a match in 1988.

He described how the fighting was “fast, brutal and not very nice”, but added that undercover officers running from skirmishes were “f****d”.

The second episode of the Channel 4 series Italia 90: When Football Changed Forever, airs tonight at

The second episode of the Channel 4 series Italia 90: When Football Changed Forever, airs tonight at

‘Cause you won’t see who’s doing what, and you won’t be respected either, and so no one will talk to you about what they’re planning to do next.

So if someone runs at me with a bat, I will hit them as hard as I can because they want to hit me.

“At the end of the day it comes down to it was my job to be as persuasive as I could be. And to get as much evidence as I could to put some nasty, horrible people in jail,” he said.

Fearing the threat of English hooligans, the Italian authorities at the 1990 World Cup kept fans away from the mainland by hosting England’s matches on the island of Sardinia.

Fans were forced to stay in isolated campsites, earning Sardinia the nickname “Hooligan Island” during the tournament.

However, there was little problem with English hooliganism at the tournament, despite the heavy-handed tactics of the Italian police.

England’s players, including Paul Gascoigne, emerged as heroes of the tournament as they reached the semi-finals but were knocked out on penalties by West Germany.

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