Inside brutal ‘Football Factory’ hooligan firms infiltrated by undercover agents

Thankfully, there has been a sharp decline in incidents of football hooliganism in recent years.

However, during the 1980s and 90s the problem was endemic in our national game and police were forced to go to extraordinary new lengths to try to halt the escalating spiral of bloody, and sometimes deadly, violence.

Firms with chilling names such as The Headhunters and Zulu Warriors struck fear into rivals supporters, putting a greater focus on fighting outside grounds than cheering on their teams.

They inspired hit movies including The Football Factory

Here, we look at some of the most infamous examples of police, as well as investigative reporters, infiltrating feared groups in a bid to stop them in their tracks.

Chelsea – 'The Headhunters'

Chelsea's Headhunters claim to be one of the original football hooligan firms in England. Their roots can be traced back to the 1960s and 70s when hooliganism was in its infancy and they were known as the 'Chelsea Shed Boys.'

However, they rose to notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s when violence at football was an all-too-often occurrence.

The group are said to be the inspiration for the hooligan firm in the hit Nick Love film The Football Factory. In 1986 they became the subject of the first high-profile police operation against hooligans to hit the headlines – codenamed 'Operation Own Goal.'

It saw plain-clothes officers spend months gathering intelligence on them before seven fans were arrested, with five subsequently being jailed. However a number of charges were also thrown out.

Prosecutors said rival fans were seriously wounded and left unconscious with 'calling cards' which said 'You have been nominated and dealt with by the Chelsea Headhunters.'

However, it was shortly before the turn of the Millennium that they fell victim to a more high-profile sting, thanks to the award-winning documentary maker Donal Macintyre, dubbed "the man with the most dangerous job in television."

He posed as a drug dealer wanting to become involved in football violence and went undercover with the firm for 18 months, secretly filming what he saw using hidden cameras. In order to convince them he was a genuine fan, he even got a Chelsea tattoo (passing out in the process) and moved into the flat next door to one member of the gang.

The results of his investigation were then aired in the first episode of his series Macintyre Undercover, broadcast in 1999. The show exposed the extreme levels of organised violence but also their links to the far right and organisations such as Combat 18.

In December 2000, two men, described as "generals" in the Headhunters were convicted and jailed for conspiracy to commit violent disorder and affray and jailed after planning violence at a game and trying to disrupt a march through London to commemorate Bloody Sunday.

Marriner, then 33 and of Feltham, Middlesex, was jailed for six years. Andrew Frain, known as 'Nightmare', then 36 and of Reading, was handed a seven-year sentence. Both men, who the judge said were "dangerous" and "relished violence" were also banned from matches for 10 years.

In 2011, Marriner and Frain were jailed again after being convicted of violent disorder at a Chelsea clash against Cardiff City at Stamford Bridge.

The Chelsea Headhunters website says the MacIntyre documentary "was completely manipulated by its executive TV producers, to gain more viewers." Marriner released his own documentary telling his side of the story in 2009.

MacIntyre was warned during his own programme by a police officer specialising in football hooliganism, that the people he had infiltrated "have long memories".

And that proved to be a spooky foreboding when 10 years later in 2009 he was attacked, along with his wife, and knocked unconscious at a wine bar in Surrey in what was described by prosecutors as a revenge attack for the sting.

Millwall – The Bushwackers

In 1995, a film called about an ambitious young copper who was sent undercover to track down the ‘generals’ of a football hooligan gang, achieved cult status for its brutality and unsettling insight into the dark side of the so-called beautiful game.

But what is not so well known, is that I.D. starring Reece Dinsdale was inspired by a true story.

Scotland Yard decided to use undercover ­officers to pervade gangs and gather evidence for arrests. So in 1987 James Bannon and his colleague were sent undercover as Millwall and tasked with infiltrating the club's infamous Bushwackers, among the most brutal and fearless in English football.

More than two dozen people were arrested, and 17 charged, as part of a previous undercover operation, codenamed 'Operation Full Time' – targeting West Ham and Millwall fans.

And James told the Andy Rowe Show podcast that he was "s******g himself" before taking on the assignment, which he described as "a daily rollercoaster."

He spent two years drinking, fighting, and swearing alongside Millwall’s hardest as they plotted battles with rival firms across the from a South London pub.

He chronicled his experiences in a Sunday Times bestselling book called Running with the Firm: My Double Life as an Undercover Hooligan. It included stories of him being attacked on the first night of the job, pretending he couldn't read and write, attacking a policeman he thought may recognise him and offering to fight one of the gang's ringleaders when they suspected he may be a cop.

However, Bannon's efforts were ultimately in vain when Yard chiefs decided the evidence gathered would probably be torn apart in court by lawyers and ended the operation with no arrests being made.

Bannon admitted he felt let down at the time but said he could have never written the book had there been arrests. He left the police in his mid-20s to become an actor, sensing his role-play skills may be better suited to that world. He also turned his book into a one-man show which he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Manchester City – 'The Guvnors' and 'Young Guvnors'

It was, at the time, the most successful police operation of its kind. Operation Omega was a huge surveillance project using with undercover officers infiltrating, but also security and other clandestine cameras being used to gather evidence on two feared Manchester City hooligan groups, The Guvnors and The Young Guvnors.

In 1997 Mickey Francis released a book called Guvnors, chronicling his exploits as the leader of Manchester City's "firm", who fought pitched battles with rival groups up and down the country.

Francis explained how he enjoyed the violence and the reputation of being considered a "hard case". However, after being involved in hooliganism for 15 years in 1989 he, and other members of the gang, were jailed following Omega which spanned a period of six months.

Dawn raids involving more than 100 officers had been carried out in 1988 seeing 26 people arrested and a large number of weapons, including knives, coshes, and body armour confiscated along with 'calling cards.'

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The tactic used by police to secure convictions and bring down the groups were also detailed in a book later released by Rodney Rhoden, on the 'rise and fall' of The Young Guvnors.

Manchester United – 'The Red Army'/'Men In Black'

On the back of Operation Omega, and a sting on Bolton Wanderers supporting thugs, officers in Greater Manchester turned their attention to troublemakers' following one of the country's most successful clubs, Manchester United.

The gang, dubbed 'The Men in Black' due to the fact members dressed in all black clothing to help avoid detection, "dominated the hooligan world" and were "older, harder and better organised than their foes" according to their 'general' Tony O'Neil who wrote two books on their exploits published 2005 and 2011 respectively.

It was their hardcore who, in 1989, became the subject of Operation Mars. An officer tasked with monitoring the group has described how two undercover officers were outed and attacked, before a Manchester derby in February 1990, leaving them need hospital treatment.

Later that year, a total of 33 people were arrested in locations including Lancashire, South Yorkshire, Bradford and the Midlands following what police said was the culmination a 15-month-long investigation.

However subsequent trial involving 19 fans, in April 1992 after the High Court ruled the prosecution could not appeal against the judge's refusal to allow undercover officers to give evidence behind screens. The prosecution said the lives of the officers would be at risk as criminals would be able to sit in court and identify and so the case was dropped.

O'Neil says in his second book, The Men in Black, that the firm 'returned to the fray, wiser, more cunning and more ruthless than ever" and went on to 'defend their fearsome reputation against the toughest outfits in Britain.'

Birmingham City – 'The Zulu Warriors'

The struck terror into their rivals with their fearsome chant: “Zulu, Zulu, Zulu!”

"It was very chilling, especially when you knew the next thing they were going to do was charge at you with a bunch of weapons; Stanley knife, cosh, or anything really" the police chief tasked with bringing them down later said.

Detective Sergeant Michael Layton headed up a crack team which in one of West Midland's Police's first undercover operations, infiltrated the group who had brought violence to the terraces of St Andrew's and towns and stadiums around the country.

The Zulu name began to become more widely known after an infamous confrontation with Manchester City fans at Maine Road in 1982. And they came to national attention following a riot involving themselves and Leeds fans in 1985, which left 500 people injured and one teenage Leeds fan dead. A judge-led public inquiry described it as 'more like the Battle of Agincourt than a football match.'

The Zulus, who counted the recently departed Barrington Patterson aka One Eyed Baz among its members before he reformed, stood apart from other notorious hooligan groups of the day, including West Ham’s Inter City Firm and the Chelsea Headhunters, in that they were truly multi-cultural.

However by the mid-1980s their group's activities were to have strayed into drugs and organised shoplifting, and Operation Red Card was launched in an attempt to bring them down.

The undercover team faced danger on many occasions, including one chilling incident when they were outed in The Crown pub – the unofficial HQ of the Zulus.

In January 1987, after months of surveillance cops swopped on the homes of 67 youths suspected of belonging to the group. A total of 49 were charged with 15 being jailed.

Mr Layton, who documented the operation in a book called Hunting the Hooligans, was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished service.

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