Not sure if you’ve heard this, but Football’s Coming Home. Head out onto the streets today and you’ll undoubtedly heard comedians David Baddiel and Frannk Skinner and Britpop heroes The Lightning Seeds’ 1996 bantz-and-pints banger blaring from ever pub, car stereo and shop front in the land. Unbelievably, England has made it to the semi-finals in the World Cup – and you know what? We actually look really bloody good. Like, we honestly might have a chance against Croatia tonight. This is partly why ‘Three Lions’ is roaring again, more than 20 years since its release (let’s not even talk about the naff 1998 re-worked re-release).
Yet that’s not the only reason. A) Christ knows the country needs some hope at the moment, as in almost every other aspect of national life the apocalypse seems inevitable. And B) Waistcoat loving snack Gareth Southgate is inextricably tied to the 1996 European Championship for which ‘Three Lions’ was written, given that it was his missed penalty that saw us knocked out. He’s said he couldn’t listen to the song for 20 years. Now, though, he’s returned to hero status as the England manager who might just help us win the World Cup for the first time in more than 50 years.
Drama, tension, joy – no wonder ‘Three Lions’ is tipped to by this week’s number one single. As it happens, Baddiel and Skinner and Liverpool band The Lightning Seeds were NME cover stars back in 1996, when we joined them as flies on the wall during the song’s music video shoot. The lads were knocking killer quotes back and forth like they were having a kick-about in the park.
On unveiling ‘Three Lions’ to the then-England team…
… And then-manager Terry Venables. Skinner told journalists Johnny Cigarettes and Steve Sutherland, who co-authored the piece: “As you can probably imagine, the FA aren’t exactly the most finger-on-the-pulse bunch when it comes to music. The FA guys comes in and we say to him, ‘Have we got anything to play the tape of the song on?’ and he says, ‘Oh, that’s alright, we have music piped in here normally, so we’ll play it on that system. So I had to explain to him that perhaps this sort of music was suited to something a little more, erm, ‘in your face’, so to speak. So someone brought in a ghetto blaster.” Have you ever heard a more ‘90s anecdote than that?
And their reaction
What did the fellas make of ‘Three Lions’ when they first heard it? “Well, there were a couple of players tapping their feet,” said Skinner. “But it’s such a weird experience having to just sit there while these people, who you admire for something completely different to what you do, are there to sit in judgement on you.” Baddiel added: “Terry Venables said it was ‘a real key-tapper’, and that’s good enough for me.” WTF is a key-tapper? No-one knows, no-one knows. Anyway, Skinner reckoned Venables’ response was actually better than that: “He actually said the song gave him goosebumps on his goosebumps!”
On the song’s jaded optimism
Part of the appeal of ‘Three Lions’ lies in the fact that the lyrics open with doubt about England’s chances (“Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before / They just know, they’re so sure / That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away”), before it explodes into that jubilant chorus. Skinner explained: “We didn’t want to do a big patriotic ‘rah, rah, rah’ song. And it’s not blindly optimistic, because when people get like that, you just think they’re being stupid. It we just said, ‘We’re gonna win ever game ‘cos we’re brilliant, like we always do, it’s not real. But if we say, ‘Well, we have been a bit shit, but I think we might actually be getting better, and we could do really well – honestly, I think we can… There’s a bit of doubt, but who knows, if we all pull together…’, then I think people relate to it far more.”
Baddiel added: “The song’s supposed to take you from one place to another. It starts off with, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what it’s like supporting England, they always fuck up. But at the end of it you’re supposed to think, ‘No, wait a minute…’ That’s why, at the start you’ve got samples of Alan Hansen and Trevor Brooking saying what an awful state the English game is in, and then towards the end you get all these positive ones.”
Later, Skinner describes ‘Three Lions’ as “battle-scarred”, which seems pretty much on the money.
Yeah, but isn’t all that patriotism sometimes a bit dodgy, though?
Maybe, admitted Baddiel, but he reckoned the song walked the line carefully. Perhaps that’s part of why ‘Three Lions’ sound so great in Brexit Britain – it’s a relief to hear patriotism without the nasty xenophobia. At the time, Baddiel said, “I think patriotism is a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with pride in your national identity, but obviously if you get shades of fascism and nationalism in it, it becomes a terrible thing… [‘Three Lions’] is modest in that it’s hopeful and there’s a sense of honour and pride and tradition in wearing the three lions on the shirt. You wouldn’t get that modesty if it was a fascistic, nationalistic song. I can’t see the people who sing, ‘Fuck the Pope and the IRA’ singing this one.”
And here’s what NME had to said about the track
Johnny Cigarettes and Steve Sutherland opined: “It’s no classic, and may not figure too highly in critics’ end-of-year polls, but as a traditional football anthem it does the job of appealing to eight-year-olds and the man on the Wembley omnibus alike. It’s no irreverent club chantalong like ‘World In Motion’, more the heartfelt voice of an England fan acknowledging the fact that everyone’s predicting doom but we can still dram of glory. Or something.”