27 years ago Riaz Khan was a member of the notorious Leicester City hooligan firm, the Baby Squad.
The shy son of Afghani-Pakistani parents living in the Midlands, Khan's career in the football terraces began via the Young Trendy Squad (a subset of the Baby Squad), which celebrated the triumvirate of football, fashion and fighting.
Though already a Leicester City fan, Khan was driven to be part of this casuals subculture with its penchant for designer clothes, by a desire to be accepted by the white working classes in a society that was steeped in racism.
The firm still operates today and a hooligan league survey in 2000 named the Baby Squad the second most violent in England and Wales after Wolves.
“It’s all about tribalism,” explains Khan. “If someone comes on your patch and they act aggressively, you have to defend your patch.”
Now a lecturer at Leicester’s De Montfort University, and occasionally in the press for his eloquent skirmishes with Britain First, Khan is at pains to point out he was a member of the gang for just six years and that he does not consider himself an authority on hooliganism.
But it’s undeniable that as the author of Khan: Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual and the proud holder of a Leicester City season ticket, Khan, who was arrested several times for match violence during his gang days, does have an insight into what is an undeniably intriguing culture.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more
In particular, Khan is watchful of its resurgence amid the terrifying new face of football hooliganism, which has reared in the form of the Russian ultras.
The practising Muslim is horrified by the scenes of violence unfolding in the European Championship, which has already seen Russia fined and threatened with expulsion from the tournament if there are further incidents.
The ultras are a core of highly-trained hooligan gangs who have put aside their domestic rivalries for the tournament.
With the exception of Polish hooligans who are known to carry knives, the Russian ultras are the most consistently violent and are often armed with martial arts gloves, iron bars and knuckledusters.
Highly athletic and physically toned, there is also evidence many are MMA (mixed martial arts) trained, with footage showing them advancing swiftly, their fists raised, bobbing up and down in a protective style often used in such fighting.
“This is not hooliganism, this is brutality,” says Khan, who has watched numerous unedited clips of them fighting on YouTube.
“You can see them stamping on people. You don’t do that sort of thing, that’s just ridiculous. You can see them kicking the living crap out of one guy on his own and there’s about ten of them beating the shit out of him. That’s not following the rules of engagement, that’s thuggery.”
Indeed the ultras have developed such a fierce reputation they are already breaking the very rules they set themselves back in December.
Entitled ‘Hooligans in Russia with new code(s)’, the charter stipulates they must not attack non-consenting fans, nor are they permitted to attack those already on the ground. Both rules are consistently being broken.
In Khan’s days as a Baby Squad member there were strict rules of engagement.
“There was conduct,” he says. “It would be 'OK, he’s on the floor, he’s done, let’s go, leave him alone'.”
“These guys are coming with iron bars, gum shields and weighted gloves. No one does that at a football match, in the casuals era we would never go tooled up because that’s just thuggery, this is not called for. They’re beating up England fans 50-odd to 3 or 4 which is not fair in numbers.”
The ultras have hostility for England fans particularly, and Khan believes this is fuelled by a desire to seize England’s dubious mantle of being the "best" hooligans.
“England has had that reputation around Europe throughout the terraces. Countries like Poland and Russia, they want that trophy, they want to be the kings of Europe,” the 50-year-old explains.
He adds: “And they’ve turned up mob-handed. They’ve been training for six months in MMA and they’ve tried to kick off with the English to prove the point that they’re the best in Europe, not us.”
But Khan says the ultras’ strategy is misguided because they aren’t targeting English hooligans, rather they’re going after ordinary fans.
He said: “In the videos I’ve been watching, you can see that they’re normal fans because football fans have a certain dress sense, they wear certain clothes and the people who have been attacked are just normal dressers, normal fans. So they haven’t got that trophy, they’ve been beating up normal football fans, not English casuals.”
What’s more, is it even an 'honour' we still hold?
“We had the best reputation of being the best hooligans in the whole world and for some time. Now, I’m not so sure. Football violence in England has sort of fizzled out what with banning orders and the fact you can go to prison for it. It’s not as strong as it was in the 70s and 80s and maybe early 90s," Khan replies.
“We’ve developed and moved on as a society. Hooliganism in Britain is not really as rife as it used to be. If I throw a punch now at a football match, I’m getting three years. You’d lose your job. No one can afford to do that anymore.
"In the 80s you had nothing to lose. You’d get a slap on the wrist and a £25 fine and by the next game you’re ready. It’s not a problem. But because of laws and CCTV in this country, it’s kind of killed it. You do hear of pockets of it here and there, but those you do hear about get arrested and they get locked up."
And it's not just the hooligans who are partial to violence in the terraces, says Khan.
"The police love to get into a fight as well. Let’s not beat around the bush. They’ve got their coshes, they’ve got their CS gas they love it when it kicks off because they can get their weapons out. The biggest firm in England are the police. If you want to talk about firms, they love to have a row."
He adds: “But it seems to me that hooligans in Eastern European countries – like Poland and Russia – are in a time warp. You don’t hear much of it in France or Italy, just minor skirmishes, but over there you see it all put on YouTube, 50 of them going into a field and having a massive fight.”
The UK government confiscated the passports of 3,000 people identified as hooligans to prevent them from traveling, the French Interior Ministry said this week.
And though there have been arrests, (and six England fans were convicted and sentenced for their involvement in rioting in Marseille) Khan believes the majority of England fans going to the Euros are unlikely to be troublemakers.
“Most of the English hardcore aren’t over in Europe, most of them are here. If the hardcore hooligans, if the hardcore casuals were there, it would be a different story altogether.
“In France you’ve got English guys going there who have probably moved on in their lives, they haven’t watched the game for a long time. They want to watch the match, have a laugh, have a beer and they’re being attacked by these paramilitary Russian guys who are looking for a fight.
“You saw what happened in Marseille, five guys were really seriously injured and two are in a coma."
Stewart Gray, of Leicestershire, was battered around the head by a gang of Russian ultras and has been in a coma since the attack. He remains in hospital in France. Andrew Bache, of Portsmouth, is in an induced coma after he was attacked by Russians armed with iron bars, causing him to suffer a heart attack and extensive brain injuries. Fundraising pages for both men have been set up.
Despite the disturbances in Marseille which saw England fans involved in three days of vicious fighting with Russians and resulted in 20 Russian men being deported, Russian MP and FA executive Igor Lebedev praised the country’s hooligans and urged them to “keep it up”.
Following a series of tweets in which he insisted: “I do not see anything terrible in fans fighting” and “the fault lies with the police”, Lebedev told Life.ru that 90% of fans go to football games hoping to get into fight and that “this is normal.”
Khan counters: “What does that tell you about their culture out there? Our MPs would never say that, ours would be stamping their feet and saying ‘What are you doing? Pack it in’ and this guy turned round and patted them on the back and said ‘well done lads, show them that we’re Russians, show them that we like to fight.’”
When asked if the ultras even have anything to do with the game anymore, the father-of-four replies: “No, I think now it’s just an excuse to fight. As Lebedev says, 90% of the fans in Russia are thugs who just want to go to a fight. It’s an excuse for them to have a fight with the English.
“My real concern is that some of these guys are neo-Nazis. The extreme right-wing ultras want to target black and Asian fans who are English.”
Already there are rumblings of dissent against Moscow hosting the World Cup in 2018. A petition urging Fifa to ban Russia from the honour has more than 23,000 signatures.
Khan concurs: “I think there is going to be big fears when we’re playing in the World Cup in Moscow. There’ll be attacks against black or Asian fans more so. It’s going to be a very dangerous and volatile situation. If the Russian government can’t control it, I don’t think the World Cup should even be held there.
“At the moment you’ve got 3,000 Russian fans coming to France, imagine what it’s like in Russia itself, there’ll be tens of thousands. If 90% of those fans want to look for a fight, you’re asking for it. There will be serious injuries. There were near deaths in France. It could be deaths over there. It could happen, that’s a very bad situation, I don’t think we should even allow the teams to go there, it should be on neutral ground.
Amid the threat of further violence, Khan has a message for the ultras: “This is not football lads, this is barbaric. If you want a fight, fight those who want to fight you.
“You’re fighting the fans who have come to watch the game.”
Football hooliganism is unashamedly glamorised by films such as Green Street and Cass, and even Khan admits he still misses and yearns for the buzz and adrenalin rushes he experienced back then.
“That never leaves you,” he says. “Even though I’m old now and I’ve stopped doing it… I still have that urge. I reminisce but I wouldn’t actually get involved again.
“When I see it now and I hear about it, I do get flashbacks. But though that feeling never leaves you, you try not to act on it because you’ve got too much to lose. I’m now married with four kids and I’ll never do it again.”
Now a practising Muslim, he says: “Then the rave scene came along and I jumped on that instead. Make peace not war, dancing instead of fighting, it made me rethink my whole life. I’ve left all that behind too, I stopped being violent, I stopped being hedonistic. I became a better person. It helped me focus on better things. I went to university, I got a degree, I got a job, I got married, I had kids and I haven’t looked back since.”
And for those who still want to pursue extreme football culture, Khan counsels: “It’s a different time now. If you said it in the 80s I’d say ‘Yeah get involved no problem, wear the right clothes and come along’, but now I’d say you've got too much to lose.
“If my son wanted to get involved I would say no, it’s not as exciting as it used to be.
"It’s not worth it.”