Three Lions: Far more than just a simple, popular football anthem – but also just a simple football anthem

Credit: PA Archive

Calling Three Lions the best football song ever feels like faint praise. In truth, it is not a crowded field.

Back Home, Vindaloo, Diamond Lights – none troubled the Ivor Novello panel. World In Motion was a step up in 1990, but did feel less rabble-rousing tune for the fans and more New Order demo with unexpected guest rap from John Barnes.

Three Lions transcended its status and then some. A number one single 25 years ago, then again two years later it has now become something closer to a folk song. The phrase “It’s coming home,” took on a memey new life during England’s World Cup run in 2018, the song spliced into TV and film scenes from Friends to the Wolf of Wall Street. 

The Duke of Cambridge tweeted “Football’s coming home” after England’s win over Sweden. Far from the boast it was sometimes interpreted as, the phrase seemed to sum up the national mood in England. Optimistic despite all previous experience, knowing full well it could all come crashing down at any moment.

That’s often the default setting for football fans. Supporters of at least 86 of the 92 league clubs go into most games knowing a defeat is eminently possible. Tapping into that vulnerability was key to the success of Three Lions.

‘Football’s coming home’ had been chosen as the slogan for Euro 96 before the FA approached Ian Broudie to write England’s official song. His football connection came from the Lightning Seeds’ The Life Of Riley soundtracking Goal of the Month on Match of the Day. For Three Lions he sought help with the lyrics from Fantasy Football League presenters Frank Skinner and David Baddiel. “He felt that we were the nation’s football fans,” says Baddiel. “We were very excited to get that call. But then rather cheekily we said we’d actually quite like to sing it as well. Very cheekily, given that I can’t really sing.”

This was not a Lloyd Webber / Rice meeting of the musical minds. Baddiel’s lyric writing CV went as far as a teenage band and a few comedy songs during his time in the Mary Whitehouse Experience. But after listening repeatedly to Broudie’s demo of the song with a wordless vocal melody Skinner and Baddiel got to work on the lyrics.

They were written in the living room of their shared flat, the basis for the set on Fantasy Football League. “We were on the real-life version of the sofa you saw in the studio,” says Baddiel. “We talked about it for a long time. I can’t remember who wrote what, I think when you’re in the room writing together you have a kind of joint consciousness.”

Both were driven by the same aim they had for their stand-up comedy, trying to say what people really thought but hadn’t yet said out loud. “We wanted to feel the reality of being an England fan,” says Baddiel. “Every football song before World In Motion tended to perpetuate the myth that England were going to win this tournament. That was always wrong, it was always a lie.”

The lyrics they wrote reflected the downbeat Graham Taylor era and the mood music coming from pundits and newspapers – England weren’t very good and were probably going to lose. “You buy that, as a football fan. Your attitude is often quite pessimistic. The song is punching through that, saying we hope and believe anyway. We wrote about that feeling of vulnerable defiance.”

It being 25 years since Three Lions was first released, Frank just sent me this pic of this piece of paper. I didn't realise he still had it. Should be in the British Museum, surely…

— David Baddiel (@Baddiel) May 20, 2021

When the FA saw the lyrics they worried the tone was too downbeat. There was some back and forth on individual lines, with exception taken to one about being “ready for war”. By the 1998 re-write, not an official England song, it was revived for Paul Ince.

Not every Baddiel and Skinner lyric idea was a winner. Baddiel remembers one early draft for the chorus:

“Three Lions on a shirt / Pickles has found a bone, look
Do it for Millichip, Bert / as he’s listed in the phone book.”

The song itself sets the tone subliminally at first. A sample of crowd noise before any instruments arrive goes from a snatch of beery singing to a groan, like a reaction to a missed penalty. Then morose commentary snippets from Alan Hansen, Trevor Brooking and Jimmy Hill ("we’ll go on getting bad results, getting bad results…") before a sudden shift to the sort of cautious euphoria Ian Broudie specialised in.

Baddiel and Skinner’s singing give the song its wonky charm. “I am not a good singer,” confirms Baddiel. “If I was to defend my own singing I would say it is a song for football fans. Football fans do a type of singing that isn’t necessarily that musical, so I would say it’s reflective of that.”

It went straight in at number one but was knocked off the top spot by the Fugees’ cover of Killing Me Softly on the day of England’s draw with Switzerland. Oddly it would return to the top of the charts again the week after the tournament had finished. The football ended in disappointment but the record-buying public clearly had a wonderful summer they wanted to remember.

The crude metric of record sales do not tell the story of how Three Lions captured the imagination. The Scotland game was the turning point. Baddiel says the FA were worried about airing it after that fame, feeling it was too partisan. But the Wembley Stadium DJ bravely overlooked Simply Red’s official dirge We’re In This Together and reached for the Lightning Seeds instead. 

“Instantly the whole crowd joined in, all the England supporting-fans, anyway," says Baddiel. "They all knew the lyrics. It was an incredible realisation in the moment, that it had really chimed. It had done its job.”

The England players enjoyed it too, despite or perhaps because they hadn’t been coerced into singing. Paul Gascoigne ordered it to be the last song played on the coach before the players disembarked at Wembley.

The 'official' England song of Euro 96 became England's unofficial anthem in the stands for decades after

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Darren Anderton calls it one of his favourite songs of all time. “It still still gives me goosebumps,” he says. “During the warm up before the game, it would come on. It was always around that time when really you should go back into the dressing room and start preparing. I would try to stay out and listen to it and listen to the fans singing around the stadium and take all that in, that whole experience.”

Even Scotland striker Ally McCoist has kind words: “I don’t mind it,” he says. “If I was going to be sadistic, in a way I quite enjoy it because hearing it everywhere usually means England will get to the semi-final of a tournament and they won’t win it.”

“The song itself is actually very good. I always enjoy the fact it gets played right up to England getting knocked out. But if you’re giving me a choice I’ll take Del Amitri, I’ll even take Andy Cameron doing Ally’s Tartan Army.”

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The Del Amitri song in question is Don’t Come Home Too Soon, from the 1998 World Cup. They were trying to tap into the same doleful spirit of Three Lions but perhaps edged too close to defeatism.

Their effort is a good deal better than the desperate England attempts to follow up Three Lions. In 1998 (How Does It Feel) To Be On Top Of World awkwardly threw Britpop at the problem again. The music world had moved on, so members of several guitar bands were teamed up with the emerging force in British pop. Astonishingly there were no further collaborations between the Spice Girls and Ocean Colour Scene.

The years that followed moved into outright novelty with Ant and Dec’s We’re On The Ball in 2002 then a final dalliance with indie sadlads in Embrace’s 2006 World At Your Feet. The concept of the official song seems to have mostly died out since. Perhaps a tacit admission that Three Lions is unbeatable.

In fact 1996 might have been the high point for football songs in the chart. In the week Three Lions reached number one FA Cup final songs by Manchester United (Move, Move, Move (The Red Tribe)) and Liverpool (Pass And Move (It’s The Liverpool Groove)) were still hanging around in the top 40. As was a tribute song to Eric Cantona by 1300 Drums (Ooh Ahh Cantona). 

Perhaps we are just another inspired musician/comedy double act pairing from recapturing those glory days? We’ll open the bidding with KSI feat. Mitchell and Webb.

They’ll have to hit upon something which speaks to the English understanding of football. Beautiful, but frequently tragic. A sense of failing to live up to expectations, allied with a undimmable hope that we just might. They’ll have a hard time bettering Three Lions.