‘Of course I’m a f**king hooligan, you pr**k. I am a hooligan…there I’ve said it…I’m a hooligan. And, do you know why? Because that’s my f**king job. – James Bannon’s response when asked by a fellow undercover officer if he was getting too involved in the violence.
Running with the firm tells the true story of police officer James Bannon detailing his two years undercover with the football hooligans that made up the notorious Milwall firm.
Some set ups for stories I find inherently interesting no matter what guise they appear in. Cops going undercover into a dangerous situation where one wrong move could result in their heads being kicked in or worse is one of those stories. Even better though in “Running With The Firm” the story is true.
“Running With The Firm” is a really enjoyable read. James Bannon gives a warts and all, 3D portrait of himself and his work. Non-football/sports fans may not think this book is for them but I would argue strongly that this isn’t the case.
Football is really just the backdrop of Running With The Firm as the book is much more of a character study of someone under extreme pressure.
I don’t know if it is correct to call the main character in a non-fiction book the protagonist but what the hell. The protagonist in Running With The Firm is genuinely interesting.
Bannon admits that as he gets more and more involved in the life of a hooligan that there are things he enjoys about it. He talks frankly about the surges of adrenaline he gets in the moments before and during the violence. He talks frankly about liking some of the hooligans.
Bannon is open about how at times he pushes the envelope about what an undercover police officer should do. To gain the Firm’s trust he puts himself at the front of acts of violence and he is honest enough to point out the concerns some of his fellow undercovers have about this.
The book is about more than violence though. The most enthralling part of the book is the frayed relationship he enjoys with his girlfriend and the flirtation he has with the barmaid at a Milwall hooligan pub. To add some extra complications said barmaid is the sister of one of the leaders of the firm.
By laying out the temptations that assaulted him and explaining just how he made the decisions he did Bannon is able to give the reader some idea of what it must be like to serve as an undercover police officer.
As a point of comparison I read Donnie Brasko a few years ago and I didn’t come away with such a felling of what it must be like to be an undercover officer. Scared of what you are doing but also addicted to to the thrill of the danger
Perhaps the aspect that would make the book most interesting to non-football fans though is the political/moral issues that the book throws up.
Firstly, there is the issue of romantic entanglement with people whilst you are undercover. Bannon just about manages to avoid succumming to temptation. Recent revelations however have shown that undercover officers in far less dangerous positions that Bannon didn’t exercise such discretion. Bannon doesn’t pass judgement on this himself writing that such as choice must be up to the individual officers but does say that in his opinion ‘fraternisation’ should only occur when it presented the only viable way of gaining the target’s trust.
This is an interesting point though. Would it have been right for Bannon to get involved with a woman if he knew that doing so would get him in a position to get lots of intelligence on the Firm’s activities? I really don’t know but that of course is what makes Running With The Firm an interesting read. It is a book of grey rather than black and white.
Secondly, Bannon is very honest in his criticisms of the police. He talks about travelling to a Milwall away game against Middlesbourgh (I could be wrong about the team) and how the home fans spent the entire afternoon hurling fistfuls of concrete at the Milwall fans. Meanwhile the cops did nothing. To make matters worse the police essentially join in with the home fans by wading into the crowd to beat and arrest Milwall fans for little to no reason. He is also very clear about how just generally incompetent the police forces as an organisation often were and likely are.
In light of the ongoing revelations about Hillsborough and other scandals this is particularly interesting.
The politics of it all brings me to my only reservation with the book. Since Running With The Firm is a personal memoir with a tight POV focus we never really get a sense of the wider politics of the football hooliganism. There is little sense of the larger picture of what was going on.
If, a bit like a Michael Lewis book, “Running With The Firm” had done this wider picture stuff as well as the personal stuff I would have no hesitation in declaring Running With The Firm to be a classic. As it is though it is just a very good book. I’d recommend it.