Rock and Roll is Full of Bad Wools

Posted: September 26, 2011 in Half Man Half Biscuit, Music & football

I keep meaning to do a “my top ten songs about football” article.  No crowd chants set to house beat, no cup final singles, just quality releases by proper musicians. Something lengthy and considered, with all my choices available in audio/video links,  like this fella has done on his blog here, with some high quality choices. He’s only chosen two over-played ‘world cup themes’ there, and a couple of his other picks, notably his number one, a song called’Strachan’ by the Hitchers, might well make it into my own chart. Check out the number two in his chart as well, by the way, if only for classic rhymes like “Four grand a week plus bonuses / I guess the onus is / On you…” And if you’ve never heard the Hitcher’s song, well it’s the kind of obsession-affirming song that you’ll probably only fail to love if you’re allergic to Leeds United.

Trouble is, most of my other choices could be a bit boring for you if you weren’t a fellow fan of the greatest band that ever lived, ‘cos I reckon at least seven or eight of my top ten would be tracks by the mighty Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB).

HMHB - the Prenton Pups, a quarter of a century ago

Anyway, what is utterly indisputable is that Half Man Half Biscuit have now released, on their brand new album which came out today, what is undoubtedly the best song ever written about the cluelessness of (some) celebrity rock ‘n’ roll football fans. Please listen and enjoy

Buy this brilliant new album here, and read a half-decent article  here, detailing how HMHB’s Nigel Blackwell is the most prolific dropper ever, ever, ever, of football references into his lyrics.  And if you don’t know what a ‘bad wool’ is in Merseyside football parlance, then you might want to read my (very long) explanation, below  (if you do already know, then you certainly won’t want to read it).

I suppose the reason I’ve never actually compiled my own top ten  is that I couldn’t decide on the order of all those other HMHB classics, but possibly, before this release, it would have been something like:

1.    1966 and all that.

2.   Dead Men Don’t Need Season Tickets

3.   Friday Night and the Gates are Low

4.   All I want for Xmas is a Dukla Prague away Kit

5.   Bob Wilson, Anchorman

6.   I was a Teenage Armchair Honved Fan

7.   Even Men with Steel Hearts (love to see a dog on the pitch)

8.   Mathematically Safe

9.   The Referee’s Alphabet

10.  On the ‘roids

….. oh I don’t know, it’s too hard. And the order would probably change every week anyway. But I do know what a ‘bad wool’ is.

Go on, then -what is a ‘bad wool’, Nige?
(NB –  this spiel is far too long – only read it if you really want to know)
Well, since you ask, first a bit about the Scouse term itself, and then the way (I am reliably informed) it is applied in this new song.

The internet and even some published books are full of crap about the origins of the Scouse term “woollyback” to refer to clueless outsiders. The term is not exclusive to Liverpool, incidentally, and has also been used in a very similar way in the North East. It is likely to originate from some or a combination or even all of the following: people from wool-producing areas; people bringing wool into the ports; people who wore sheepskin jackets; people with unkempt hair; people seen as “sheepshaggers”, hairy half-sheep, wide-eyed incomers there to be ‘fleeced’ as they passed through the port seeking work , or often on their way to a new life in the colonies or new world. Indeed, the term like a lot of Scouse-isms, like the word “Scouse” itself in fact, may well have originated at sea. Its first use may have been to refer to clueless, unkempt yokels amongst the crew and/or passengers.

The word has been around for a long, long time and does _not_ originate in any of the 20th century dock strikes, as some websites have it. Just because that’s the first time it came to wider attention, because it was “woollyback” labour from South Lancashire that was used to try to break the strikes, doesn’t mean that was its origin. Nor does it refer to wool left on dockers’ backs after carrying bales of wool. That would make the dockers themselves the woollybacks, which they weren’t.
In Liverpool it can refer geographically to people from Lancashire, people from the Wirral, Cheshire, Wales, etc. In Liverpool & Everton football circles it naturally came to refer to all non-Scouse supporters, even those like me who were born within a few miles of the ground.

“Woollyback” was abbreviated to “Woolly” and then just “Wool”.   These abbreviations became especially common in the aforementioned football circles. Wools were always objects of scorn for their fashion sense, which became symbolic of their general cluelessness about football. As the late 70s terrace song, still being sung today on the coaches to away matches, puts it:

“There’s a woolly over there (over there)
And he’s wearing brown Airwear (brown Airwear)
With a 3-star jumper halfway up his back,
He’s a f*ckin’ woollyback (woollyback)”

It was in the late 70s and early 80s that huge numbers of “Wools” from outside really started to jump on the LFC and EFC bandwagons, engendering hostility in some circles. But of course the reasonable view was that it was about “attitude not accent”, a phrase coined by one of the fanzine writers in one of the classic fanzines like The End or Everton’s When Skies Are Grey (WSAG) I think. Thus we gradually acquired the coinages “good wools” (people from outside town who get the culture of the club they claim to support) and “bad wools” (people who don’t, and who are an embarrassment).

These terms are more often that not still used geographically, but “bad wool behaviour” is something that is independent of geography. A surprising number of Scousers still have crap trainers, despite all the advantages of the local education system and some fine retail outlets offering reasonable prices; some Scousers can sometimes wear the latest horrible shiny football shirts over jumpers; a few Scousers have even been heard to get carried away and chant the dismal, generic Soccer AM “Who are Ya?” chant; one or two have perhaps got carried away and let their kids wear face-paint at cup finals; some of them get very excited about international football tournaments and do embarrassing things with national paraphenalia. There are even a few Scousers who adopt Woolly habits and refer to certain opposition teams as “The Scum”. Equally there many out-of-town supporters who would not do any such embarrassing things and are a credit to the fanbase. The famous “Norwegian Wools” flag you see at all Liverpool’s European away matches is welcomed because of its self-deprecating humour, whereas if a flag went up with let’s say “Chesterfield Reds on Tour”, it would soon meet a sticky end. Bad wool behaviour to make an embarrassing flag like that. Incidentally Liverpool supporters consider it _very_ bad wool behaviour to write your club’s name on a national flag.

Clearly Nigel Blackwell of Half Man half Biscuit is not using the term geographically in his song. For a start, in a geographical sense, he is to many Scousers a “wool” himself, and his beloved Tranmere Rovers would be seen by many Scousers as a “woollyback” club (though I have also heard some of Tranmere’s finest and hardest use it ironically against Wrexham or Chester supporters). And if that wasn’t clear, well Nigel told me last week that “as you know, our generation’s idea of a ‘wool’ is not a geographical notion in any way” and that “the biggest baddest wool I know is from [he specified a well-known area of central] Liverpool”. He also referred to “bad Wools who’ve just discovered Johnny Cash”, spreading the theme to another track off the new album.

So in his new song it refers to people like up-and-coming rock and pop stars who jump on the football bandwagon without a clue. They appear, for example, on the Soccer A.M. sofa and spout shite about `footy’ to show how cool they are. In one live version of `A Country Practice’ a couple of years back, Nigel summed up his feelings on the matter as he screwed up his eyes and ranted as follows:

“Pop groups on the Saturday morning couch, yawning. Bad wools in the Luther Blissett Stand*. Bands on Soccer AM being asked “Well, you come from Southend do you ever get down to Roots Hall much ?” and they just look to the side to the TV chef, and they look at Razor Ruddock, but Razor Ruddock ain’t gonna help you now boys.

BAND (whispering frantically amongst themselves): What’s Roots Hall? What’s Roots Hall?

PRESENTER: I thought you came from Southend?

BAND: Yeah well there’s four of us in the band and one doesn’t like football. They support Manchester and Liverpool, and I errm, support Arsenal and Chelsea. Here’s our latest single.


This scenario is remarkably similar to the one described in this new song. Bad wools in this context = clueless fools, largely but not exclusively from the places like the home counties, largely middle class, with no idea of how to disguise their ignorance of real, traditional football culture at all gracefully.

* I hasten to add that I myself have only ever caught a couple of editions of the execrable excuse for a TV show ‘Soccer AM’, but for those unaware: ‘The Luther Blissett Stand’ is a particularly attention-seeking section of the audience of that particular Saturday morning show, called on to represent ‘their’ club, all clad in their horrible shiny overpriced replica shirts of course. They have to take part in certain embarrassing challenges – especially embarrassing to other supporters of their own club. I am told that Nigel’s new song is not necessarily to be seen as an attack on Soccer AM itself, so much as the clueless fools who go on it, and especially those kinds of rock groups. The song then goes on to broaden the scope of its satire about clueless behaviour in rock circles.

What is really sad is that the Sky generation of kids are taking their example from these people and generally following the creeping shiny Americanisation of our game. And that they aren’t supporting their local teams.

  1. Splendid! Though I was under the impression that we concluded the ‘Woolyback’ tag was first attributed to those who lived on the outskirts of the city. When ships came in, they were the slowest to the port, and as a result of this unloaded the least valuable goods – ie, the livestock.

    Those living closest would bring in the dry goods, spices etc…

    • nige says:

      I’ve heard similar versions many times down the years Tom, but I’m not convinced. Livestock would have been herded off a ship; wool would have already been baled and would have been loaded onto carts, etc., surely by the same people who handled the other goods. Significant quantities of livestock or wool on a spice or dry goods ship? All seems rather far-fetched to me. So show me some etymological evidence for this please. Good to hear from you anyway, and I’ll get back to you on e-mail v. soon about other stuff. Tomorrow in fact (I’m in sunny France today!)

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