Mark Mason

The truth about Three Lions

The truth about Three Lions
David Baddiel and Frank Skinner
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During last year’s European Championship, England football fans switched, for some reason, from ‘Three Lions’ to ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond (‘so good, so good, so good’). If anything can make them switch back it’s the Football Association, who this week said they were thinking of dropping the Baddiel and Skinner anthem as England’s official song, because it could be seen as ‘arrogant’. Football fans are like children, and as any parent could have told the F.A., if you want to make sure someone does something then just tell them not to do it. The F.A. quickly had to issue a statement confirming there were no plans to change.

David Baddiel himself feels the F.A. have long disliked the song. ‘I think it’s the notion – misinterpreted by many people – that “football’s coming home” means that England owns football and we are the homeland of football. Which historically is the case – we were the first ones to ratify the rules of the game.’ But, as he and Frank Skinner always point out, the song’s whole ethos is the opposite of bragging – it highlights how much England have lost. ‘Thirty years of hurt’ go the lyrics – and now, with England still not having won a major tournament since the 1966 World Cup, it’s 58 years of hurt. The song’s point is that disappointment doesn’t stop fans supporting the team – it ‘never stopped me dreaming’.

Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, who wrote the music when the song was commissioned for Euro 96, agreed. ‘I certainly didn’t want to do one of those cheerleading records.’ That was why he refused the F.A.’s offer of having England players singing on the song – he didn’t want it to be ‘England-istic’, saying it was more about ‘being a football fan, which, for 90 per cent of the time, is losing.’ He should know: the crowd noise on the record was recorded by Broudie, a Liverpool fan, at Anfield during a 1995 UEFA Cup tie against Danish team Brondby – a tie which Liverpool lost.

Broudie remembers some people thinking the lyrics were ‘three lines’ (which might have been appropriate for some footballers in the partying past). The England squad themselves were initially unimpressed when it was played to them as they prepared for dinner one night. The opening words are about everyone knowing England are going to ‘throw it away, gonna blow it away’. ‘I was looking at the ghetto blaster, and looking at them. I could see them thinking: “What is this guy saying? We’re going to get stuffed?” But then Frank Skinner made an ‘impromptu speech’ explaining the idea, Paul Gascoigne said he liked it, and all was well.

England’s triumpant progress to the Euro 96 semi-finals sent ‘Three Lions’ to number one in the charts. So popular was it that even the German players sang it on their way to Wembley for the semi, and after they beat England and then won the tournament they were serenaded with it by the crowd at their victory parade in Frankfurt. The record even reached number 49 in the German charts.

By that autumn, opposition leader Tony Blair was saying to his party conference: ‘Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming – Labour’s coming home.’ Two years later a new version was recorded for the 1998 World Cup, with new lyrics to reflect current players. Baddiel and Skinner had originally written the line ‘Butcher ready for war’ in reference to Terry Butcher’s legendary ‘carrying on with a bloodied bandage round his head’ performance against Sweden in 1989. The F.A. had rejected this in 1996 to avoid images of hooliganism, but the 1998 version includes ‘Ince ready for war’ (Paul Ince having ended up in a similar state during a qualifier against Italy).

The verse also included ‘Gazza good as before’ and ‘Psycho screaming’, which looked rather unfortunate when neither Paul Gascoigne nor Stuart Pearce were selected for the tournament. But still ‘Three Lions’ returned to number one – rather galling for the official song, ‘How Does It Feel to Be On Top of the World?’ by England United, comprising members of Echo and the Bunnymen, the Spice Girls, Ocean Colour Scene and Space. The 1998 video includes Frank Skinner holding a melon and plunging his forearm into a bucket of custard to recreate the World Cup trophy.

The 1998 song was re-released for the World Cups of 2002 and 2006, then in 2010 Baddiel and Skinner recorded yet another new version, containing an ill-advised operatic contribution from soprano Olivia Safe. None of these tournaments saw the song trouble the number one spot again, but it did achieve the feat when England reached the World Cup semi-final in 2018. This made it the first song ever to top the UK charts on four separate occasions (the song having done so twice during Euro 96). Mind you when England lost that semi to Croatia the record dropped to 97 in just one week – the fastest ever descent (at that point) by a number one single.

Croatian captain Luka Modrić has confirmed that his team did see the record as arrogant, and used it as a motivational tool before the match. When Italy beat England in the final of last year’s Euros they celebrated with chants of ‘it’s coming to Rome’. And it’s true that a Scottish branch of Morrisons received complaints and had to stop playing ‘Three Lions’ during the 2014 World Cup, with one shopper saying: ‘It’s just rubbing in the fact that England are playing in Brazil and Scotland didn’t qualify’. Understandable in a country whose official animal is the unicorn, chosen precisely because it’s the enemy of the lion.

But by and large the rest of the world understand the song’s real meaning. Indeed the French team Racing Club de Strasbourg adopted it as their song to walk out to at home matches. And Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie will love the song being back in their news – it can only add to sales, already well north of 1.5 million.

When England fans sang ‘it’s coming home’ during the 2006 World Cup match against Paraguay, one commentator said: ‘As football songs go, “Three Lions” is certainly the best.’ And that commentator was John Motson. So it’s official.