Football hooliganism, Islam and me – the story of an Asian lad in Leicester’s notorious Baby Squad
Riaz Khan was a shy Muslim boy who became a member of the notorious Leicester City hooligan firm, the Baby Squad. He speaks to Lee Marlow about honour, violence and Slazenger jumpers.
This is a story of multi-culturalism Leicester, of white and black and Asian coming together as one; overlooking their differences and standing shoulder to shoulder to fight for a common cause.
Leicester is a city that is built on stories of multiculturalism. This one, says Riaz Khan, is one you’ve probably never heard.
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“It sounds almost noble when you put it like that – black, white, Asian, coming together as one. But it was like that,” says Riaz, a 46-year-old English teacher from Evington, Leicester.
“We were one. The colour of your skin didn’t matter. That didn’t happen elsewhere in the country, but it happened here. And it only happened here for one reason.”
The reason? Football hooliganism.
Twenty five years on, Riaz – a softly-spoken, easy-going father of four – still winces at the term “football hooliganism.”
Riaz and his brother, Yusuf, were members of the Leicester Baby Squad, the notorious Leicester City firm.
The TV and the papers called them football hooligans. Riaz shakes his head. “We weren’t hooligans. We were casuals. That’s the word.
“We were fun-loving casuals. We weren’t yobs. It wasn’t mindless
violence, not in the way it was portrayed in the media. It was violent, occasionally, yes – but it was orchestrated; one like-minded firm against another.”
He’s not defending it, he says. He’s redefining it. And, besides, it wasn’t just about the fighting. It was about much more than that. “If it was just about the fighting, I wouldn’t have stuck it. It was about the camaraderie, the fashions, the clothes.”
For six years, from the autumn of 1983 until the end of 1989/90 season, Riaz lived this life.
He watched City home and away. Sometimes he fought. Sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he won. Sometimes he took a beating.
He was arrested. He was convicted. He bought the finest clothes from the most expensive designer shops and was the coolest kid on the block. And then he did it all over again, season after season.
All of that – the football, the clothes, the camaraderie, the fighting – became the fabric of Riaz’s life.
But why? It’s a question you could ask any young member of the Baby Squad. Why? What did you get from it?
But for a young Muslim boy growing up in Rushey Mead with ambitious parents and a strict culture which forbade it – how on Earth did that happen? Sit yourself down, he says, brushing down his beard. It’s a lo-o-ong old story.
What you have to remember, says Riaz, is the context. The era. The story starts in Leicester in the mid-70s. It was a very different city to the one we live in today.
Riaz and his brothers and sister grew up in Rushey Mead. It was white then, he remembers, with only a smattering of Asian faces. The Khans stuck out. They were different.
He went to school at Wreake Valley. Casual racism seemed like it was almost part of the syllabus to Riaz. “I remember walking to and from school and seeing swastikas sprayed on walls and NF signs and slogans like ‘Pakis Out’. It was everywhere. It was just part of your life.”
The racism was never physical. It never spilled over into brawls or fights. But it was incessant.
“I took it day after day,” he says. “It made me feel inferior. I rejected who I was and where I was from. I didn’t want to be that person. I wanted to be white. I wanted to belong.”
He found a teenage identity in music and fashion: jazz funk initially, then the New Romantics and the fashions of the time.
“It only really made sense to me when I read a story in the paper about the Leeds Service Crew – a group of Leeds United fans, Leeds casuals, who dressed in a certain way.”
He cut the feature out and read it over and over again. This is what he wanted. The clothes. The hair. The bond, the camaraderie.
“I worked at Walkers crisps in the summer and all my money would go on Lyle & Scott jumpers and Patrick cagoules and Puma G.Vilas trainers. I was out and about, wearing this stuff, when one day, while walking through Leicester I saw a group of lads dressed in the same stuff.”
They started talking. We’re football trendies, they said. Come and join us. It was a chance to be part of something – although what that was, he wasn’t exactly sure – and Riaz took it. He was in. For the first time in his life, he was in.
“I was never into football, but they told me about the football and the fighting and how it was all part and parcel of it and well, that was it for me. I can’t say that was what I was looking for, but, also, it wasn’t enough to make me walk away.”
His first football game was in October 1983, away to Birmingham. City lost that day 2-1. Lineker scored for Leicester. Riaz doesn’t remember this. He didn’t see his first game. He was arrested before the match kicked off.
“I didn’t even make it to the ground. We ran into some Birmingham lads near the Bull Ring and that was that.”
It kicked off.
He came home late that night. “Why are you so late?” his father wanted to know. There was some trouble, Riaz said. His strict father banned him from going to a match again.
“And yet,” recalls Riaz, “although he didn’t approve, we were from a long line of Pathans. They were warriors, fighters. It was a proud heritage. If I’d have been in trouble for theft, my dad would have been appalled. Fighting? Well... it didn’t seem quite so bad.”
His parents wanted him to study; to be a lawyer or an accountant.
“Asian families in Leicester in the 1970s, they were all desperately keen for their children to do well,” he says.
His parents were no different. It made no difference. “I didn’t listen. I thought I knew best. It happens with boys and adolescence – it’s a form of temporary insanity isn’t it? I rejected everything they tried to give me – advice, religion, everything – and set out on my own way.”
The ban didn’t last. He wriggled out of the curfew and started going to the football every week. He started to learn about Leicester City, the football, the players – Lineker and Lynex; Bobby Smith and Andy Peake – but, and this always seemed more important, he admits, he learned about everything else that came with it: terrace culture, mates, fashion trainers and how to handle himself.
“For that first season, I was scared. I’d see other lads coming and I’d stand aside or run off. I was too scared to get involved.”
But the way you got accepted in this strange new world, the way you earned your stripes, was by standing your ground, covering your mate’s back, proving yourself.
“So that’s what I started to do,” says Riaz.
There was a moment, one incident during a lads’ day out in Skegness when Riaz knew, finally, that he’d been .
They bumped into a small group of skinheads who, immediately, started shoving Riaz around. “One of them hit me over the head with a steel-framed newspaper A-board. It was kicking off and it was kicking off for no other reason than because I was Asian.”
One by one, his new Baby Squad mates, who were drinking nearby, poured out into the street and set about the skinheads. It was a clear message: you fight him, then you fight all of us.
“There was a bit of a skirmish: Baby Squad lads versus these National Front lads. They didn’t want me to get beaten up because of the colour of my skin, because I was Asian. They saw me as one of them.”
Amid the flying fists and violence, Riaz was aware something significant had just occurred. It was, he says, a beautiful moment.
“A few years earlier and that just wouldn’t have happened.”
The Baby Squad was the collective name of the Leicester City hooligan firm. It was one big group on a Saturday afternoon, but made up of a combination of smaller gangs from all over Leicestershire – Braunstone, Thurnby Lodge, Netherhall, the West End, New Parks, St Mark’s and St Matthew’s, as well as county areas such as Coalville and Hinckley.
“Before the advent of the Baby Squad, these groups fought each other. The BS brought them together.”
For six years, that’s what he did. Home and away, although not always away. “I never really enjoyed travelling too far,” he says.
He bought his clothes from Scotney’s, on London Road, or MC Sports, in Humberstone Gate. Occasionally, Riaz and some of this friends would take the train to London for a shopping spree at Nik Naks and Lilywhites.
“There weren’t many places to go in Leicester, really,” he says. “I knew some lads – some of the more middle-class members from Oadby – who would fly over to Italy to get kitted out.”
How you looked was important, he says. It set you apart.
Riaz left that world a long time ago, but not all of it, it seems.
On the day we meet, Riaz is wearing black Adidas Gazelles, a Ralph Lauren shirt, Armani jumper and Stone Island hat and coat.
“Yeah,” he says. “Once you’re into that, I don’t think it ever leaves you. I’m not as daft as I was back then, though. This stuff will last me a couple of years now. Back then, I’d wear it for a month then sell it.”
Which is all very nice and glamorous – but it wasn’t always like that, was it?
“No, it wasn’t,” he says. “There were a few hairy moments. I remember lots of City fans getting a police escort from Villa Park one Saturday afternoon.
“Somehow, the small group I was with ended up outside the Holte End at Villa Park with no escort – just as the Villa fans were coming out.
“We were spotted and a gang of 300 or so Villa fans chased us for miles. We ran and ran until we couldn’t run any more. I remember someone saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to stop, let’s just get this over with’. We knew we were going to take a beating.”
And then, as if from nowhere, the West Midlands Police arrived. “I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to see a policeman in my life,” says Riaz.
Another Saturday afternoon: the Haymarket, 1984, Leicester versus Arsenal. “We confronted the Arsenal fans near the Haymarket. It was bedlam. I remember one of our boys, a nice lad from Birstall, was slashed with a Stanley knife.
“I saw the blood and I saw the wound. He never came back after that. I never saw him again.”
There were others, he says. Fights and slashings and brawls and beatings. They all kind of blend into one big bloody brawl of testosterone and designer gear.
“West Ham was always a bit hairy. Chelsea were always very racist. Millwall were just mad. I don’t know why.”
It stopped as quickly as it started for Riaz. In 1989, he was 23, nearly 24. “I was bored of it. I didn’t want to fight every weekend.
“I started going to raves instead. I enjoyed it. It was a completely different thing – driving out to a big field in the middle of nowhere and dancing all night with blokes who supported other teams and having a great time.”
He’d changed. “I grew up,” he says. “That adolescent/teenage period was over. Temporary insanity, you see.” Riaz started to think about who he was, what he’d done, and what he wanted to be.
“The religion I turned my back on as a teenager started to appeal to me. I read about Islam and started going to the mosque on Loughborough Road.”
Riaz is now married to Maryam and has four children.
He went back to college and studied. Today, he’s an English teacher and studying for a Masters Degree in English language teaching at university.
Education, he says. That’s what counts. Education changes everything. His pupils know nothing of his past. “I guess they’re in for a bit of a shock,” he says.
Four years ago, as the EDL started to garner support from the terraces of English football grounds, Riaz thought about writing a book.
“When the EDL came here, I saw people I used to know from the Baby Squad and it just stopped me in my tracks.
“Had it really come to this?
“I thought they were better than that. I wondered what they were thinking.”
The book – Khan: Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual – is out next weekend. It tells the story of a nice little Muslim boy from Leicester who ran with the Baby Squad.
It attempts to explain what that was like, to put what he did in those years into some sort of context. There was a justification for it, he says.
“There is no justification for the thinly-veiled racism you see in the EDL, though,” he says.
And what if one of your sons comes home and says, ‘Dad, I want to be a casual, a football hooligan?’
“I won’t allow that,” he says. “I know what happens. I’ve seen it. I don’t want that for them.”
• Khan – Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual, published by Countdown Books is out on December 15 and is available at HMV in Leicester, priced at £7.99.