Sports

My Life as a Teen Brawler in Leicester City’s 80s Hooligan Firm

With all the street fights and police face-offs, the Baby Squad crossed racial divides and created an unexpected utopia in a changing city.

by Sophie Brown
01 May 2016, 12:00am

Riaz Khan, an early Baby Squad member, as a youngster (Photo courtesy of Riaz Khan)

It's 1982 in Leicester. Gary Lineker is playing football rather than selling crisps. Leicester City Football Club languish in the Second Division – miles from the position they've soared to, currently at the top of the Premier League for the first time in their 132-year history. And a crew of Leicester supporters known as the Baby Squad hooligan firm are clashing with Derby fans before an away game.

"A big mob of us went up on the train early in the morning for the 3PM kick off in October 1982," says Paul Allan*, who counts himself among the Leicester Baby Squad founders. "We got ourselves in this pub called the Castle and Falcon and we were playing pool and having some beers, when a load of the Derby fans started coming in.

"This was their stronghold – like the Snooty Fox was to us in Leicester. When they noticed us it was carnage. There was fighting, bar stools being thrown, pool cues being used. It all spilled out into the streets and the police just couldn't control it. You could hear all the sirens going off," and he pauses. "It's not something I'm proud of – I'm just telling you how it was."

Eighteen years later, the relatively unknown Baby Squad – never as big as the major London firms – had Leicester voted the UK's second most-violent football club, in a survey published by the National Criminal Intelligence Service. So just who were they, and what did they stand for?

Years under the radar have turned the gang into the stuff of urban legend. Most people from Leicester have an uncle's girlfriend's brother who was definitely in the Squad, or a fourth cousin who was involved in the fight against Millwall fans in 1987 that saw a police officer's nose and cheekbone shattered. The Baby Squad, like the Foxes, were the underdogs, born from a mob of casuals who lived for three things: football, fashion and "absolutely having it at the weekend", as one ex-member – who didn't want to be identified – said.

"Baby Squad was first formed in 1982, when a group of young lads walked past a copper and the copper said: 'What's this? The baby gang?'," says Riaz Khan, a 50-year-old ex-member who's written a memoir about his time in the gang. "From there, it just sort of stuck." As word of the police officer's quip spread, the gang embraced the name.

"We got labelled it, so we adopted it. I was a youth," says Paul, now 52, "full of bravado and adrenaline, and it was just a product of the time. It was part of the culture of growing up. You had this loyalty to Leicester and you wanted to mark your territory and be bigger and better than other cities."

The Baby Squad quickly became bigger than turf wars and football. Leicester was a stronghold for the National Front, and past members now say that the unity the gang provided helped to mend the divide that gripped the city. "There were a few people in the firm who didn't like Asians," says Riaz, "but as time went by and more and more Asians started coming to the football, we were just accepted. Leicester is unique. The Baby Squad, and the casual scene – especially in Leicester and Birmingham and cities like that – broke down more racial barriers than any government think tank or any racial equality organisation ever could."

Other members speak from that oddly utopian perspective in other ways. Bev Thompson started hanging out with the Baby Squad when her parents relocated to Leicester from Yorkshire. and remembers the way the gang navigated gender.

"I started going to matches and trying to infiltrate the group. I was nicknamed 'Aquascutum Girl' because I was one of the best-dressed out of a group of fiercely competitive older males, but I was never an official member – more of a groupie. The Baby Squad were violent and I wasn't into getting sliced with a Stanley knife! I couldn't protect myself with my fist like the blokes."

Bev Thompson, back in her Squad days (Photo courtesy of Bev Thompson)

Bev also says she made a handy look-out for the Baby Squad, who would have her wait at the train station for rival fans to arrive and scope out the location of the police before big matches. At the end of the game, she'd collect jewellery and money from the lads before it could get lost in the inevitable post-match brawl.

Now aged 47, Bev says that her time with the Squad was a big influence on her life. "I witnessed a group filled with courage, loyalty and purpose. It gave me the confidence to be a strong female in a man's world."

To gang members it was all fun and football, but to Leicester City's club directors the Squad's reputation was becoming a problem. The football club got tougher on violence within the stadium after local papers reported that "violent fans could kill off local soccer".

With safety concerns heightened, the police were forced to chaperone rival fans back to Leicester train station in buses after home matches at Filbert Street, leading to a riot in 1986 that saw 64 fans arrested for attacking the buses and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Riaz Khan, second from the right, with friends – not necessarily members of the Squad

The club's crackdown pushed the violence flooding out of Filbert Street, where the Foxes grounds remained until 2002. Riaz says that the smaller stadium nestled in the city centre, with its rows of terraced streets and back alleys. provided the shelter for fights hidden from the watchful eye of the police.

"Nowadays it's much more controlled. There are CCTV cameras everywhere and banning orders on people who've been involved in anything dodgy. Plus, the Leicester ground has moved now so it's harder. The Walkers Stadium is in such a big area; you can see the fights happening from a mile away."

While the post-football fights are few and far between in Leicester now, the original Baby Squad members still frequent the matches. Their era is over, and a new gang, the Young Baby Squad, are trying their luck at filling their shoes – but not very successfully.

*Name changed to protect source's identity

@sophiebrownHP

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