An undercover police officer who busted some of the very worst at the height of football hooliganism in the UK has broken his silence, revealing what really happened during this dangerous time.
“Richard” had rose through the ranks to become a detective constable in West Midlands Police, and was given an intelligence role focused on six clubs – Birmingham City, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Wolves, Coventry City and Walsall.
Before that, he had beein involved in Operation REACH, tasked with ridding the Wolverhampton Wanderers fanbase of its hardcore hooligan firms.
But his role in the covert team took him far beyond the Midlands.
And now, speaking to BirminghamLive, he has told all, ahead of the release of a new book, detailing his experiences.
In 1998, Richard was one of a select team of officers who travelled to the World Cup Finals.
Their brief was to monitor the hardcore hooligans hell-bent on trashing England’s reputation abroad.
Here are his recollections of the trouble that exploded on the streets.
“On Saturday, June 13, 1998, most of the team flew to Marseilles, the host city for England’s first game against Tunisia. As soon as we landed, we were out on the streets helping French police to deal with disorder in the Old Port area where several hundred English fans were drinking. Four arrests were made after bottles were thrown, but the disorder was described as minor.
“The following day a large group of English fans massed at a waterfront bar called O’Malley’s. Some then left the pub and tried to burn an Irish flag before chanting, ‘No surrender to the IRA’, following which threats were made to the police.
“A 40 yard ‘no-man’s land’ opened between police in riot-gear and England fans.
“We found the attitude of the French police, who simply stood their ground, firing tear-gas when the hooligans got too close, a little hard to understand. There was little attempt to disperse the fans or make arrests. Still, it gave us plenty of chances to video the ensuing riot with hand-held videos.
“After two hours the police moved forward banging their shields like Zulus and dispersed the crowds of supporters.
“Elsewhere on the other side of the harbour, English fans fought with local Arab youths and local football hooligans. One fan trapped down a side-street had his throat cut.
“The following day we reviewed the video material that we had. After filming this sort of stuff for 15 years, it was probably the best evidence I’ve ever seen. The material was later used to convict the ringleaders and we literally started looking for these people everywhere we went in France.”
Richard’s introduction to Operation REACH proved a baptism of fire. He was punched on the jaw during his first “job”, an undercover trip to Hartlepool. He said: “I was one of eight officers working undercover. In those early days we had to improvise as there were no real guidelines.
“We created our own ‘legends’ so that when people asked who we were and why we had suddenly just appeared, we had a plausible story. As a youngster I had worked in a fish and chip shop. My story was that I had been working for 10 years in a chippie in Skegness and had just moved back to Wolverhampton.
“I was so concerned for my family during the operation that we used to go and do the shopping literally miles away and I used to stay ‘in character’ just in case I bumped into anyone.
“The scariest moment I had on the job was right at the very beginning. We had to go to Hartlepool on a Saturday. Two of us went on a train and there were about 10 other football fans on it. The only two scruffy looking guys on there were us.
“We got off the train at Hartlepool and, with the ground in sight, we spotted 10 guys across the road from us who were obviously looking for trouble. One guy came over and asked me the time. It was the classic tactic, done to catch your accent.
“This guy had cuts all over his face and he was literally in my face.
“I tried to fob him off by saying that we weren’t looking for trouble. Just then in the distance I saw some police vans arrive at the ground. I pointed towards them and said, ‘look – coppers’. At that point, he punched me on the jaw and ran off.
“That was my welcome to the job. It did me good, though, because although there was a certain loss of pride, it sharpened me up.
“The operation resulted in more than 80 arrests and one of them was the guy who assaulted me, as the attack was witnessed by a local reporter who knew him. When the undercover phase was over, he was arrested and I picked him out on an ID parade.”
By 1989, Richard had been promoted to the rank of detective constable. He was given an intelligence role focused on six clubs – Birmingham City, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Wolves, Coventry and Walsall.
“I remember one case where we were able to disrupt some fans in a significant way,” he said.
“I went to a local derby game between West Brom and Wolves in the early ‘90s. The game was held at West Brom’s ground and I noticed some of the ‘GROWTH’ hooligans hanging around who were still the subject of five-year football banning orders not to enter stadiums.
“They thought they could hang around outside the ground and we couldn’t touch them. There was a whole group of ‘risk’ supporters numbering more than 200. While the game was going on inside, they were marauding around.
“They thought the turnstiles marked the boundary with the ground, but I knew better. During the week at the away-end there were some roller shutter gates which closed the end to the turnstiles. On match-days they were opened to give access which meant that some of this group were standing within the footprint of the stadium itself and, in my opinion, had therefore breached their banning orders.
“I used to work on the Operations Support Unit and I liaised with them and several of this group, possibly eight, were arrested. They pleaded not guilty initially but when their solicitors were shown the map of the ground, they changed their pleas to guilty.
“After court, I was threatened by some of the group who were known as the ‘Bridge Boys’. They told me that next time they saw me I was going to get ‘done over’. I told them that next time I was at the Molineux I would be on the bridge on my own if they fancied their chances. Forty turned up, looked at me, and walked away.
“They just couldn’t be sure whether we had them on camera.”
Richard believes he and his colleagues made a difference. They helped make football grounds family friendly once again.
He added: “I’d like to think we laid the foundations for change in the culture and although it still exists, it’s not like the 1980s.
“Better intelligence, CCTV cameras, better education and training of the police and proper coordination have all helped to demoralise gangs. Banning Orders and the more effective use of legislation have also played an important part.
“I often used to get officers asking me what the game was like when I had been to a match. Most times the answer I gave was that I hadn’t got a clue. I wasn’t there to watch the game!”
*Richard’s story can be read in full in “The Hooligans Are Still Among Us”, a book by Mike Layton and Bill Rogerson, published by Amberley.