Why ‘Three Lions’ is still the ultimate football anthem

As we gear up for the Euros, our columnist reflects on the footie song that still brings a tear to her eye – 25 years since it originally got our hopes up

When was the last time you cried while watching something? Normal People? I May Destroy You? Nannette? The Masked Singer? (You know: out of sheer despair.) For me, it was rewatching the ‘Three Lions’ video just now as I gear up for the Euros, with the footie tournament starting tomorrow night.

Read more: The best football songs – ever!

It’s still the best football anthem ever, mostly because it went against what every other football anthem did before it and addressed the fact that (say it quietly) England aren’t always that good. There’s something about the chanting within the song and the blind hope that we might just do it that sends the tears streaming down my face: they’ve done it again; they’ve made me believe! All this, 25 years after the original release of Baddiel and Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ anthem, which has been reissued on vinyl to mark the anniversary.

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No wonder Three Lions’ was resurrected again for England’s nation-uniting performance in the 2018 World Cup. After The Tensest Game Known To Man(™) against Columbia – where we actually won on penalties – the streets were flooded with shocked and relieved fans stopping traffic and roaring ‘It’s Coming Home’ through their tears. Then, of course, it being 2018, there were the memes, with the song overlaid onto random clips (Putin at a piano, anyone?).

The song went in at Number One again, and it felt like the whole nation was singing our way to victory – until Croatia rudely dashed our hopes. I can’t imagine Brazil or France’s anthems have the same gravitas as our rousing one – songs called ‘We’ll probably win’ and ‘Crowded Trophy Cabinet’ just don’t get you in the same way.

If Noddy Holder is the patron saint of Christmas Royalties, Baddiel and Skinner and the Lightning Seeds are surely the Kings of The Football Anthem. The two poster boys for the nicer side of ’90s lad culture wrote the lyrics to the tune, with the band’s Ian Broudie on the music. You’d think they could probably fund the England team themselves at this stage, given the song’s success, but Baddiel has said he and Skinner made less than 900 quid from 5.6 million streams of the song.

Still, it has contributed something more important than money. Speaking to NME earlier this year, Broudie explained its appeal: “It was a tough ask to write a song like that and make it OK. All the other [football] songs before had been written from the team’s perspective, like ‘We’re going to win’, and the reason this one worked was because it was from a fan’s point of view.” He’s right: ‘Three Lions’ is the song of the people, about the team, not the team singing to us awkwardly and being forced to record a song (with the exception of John Barnes’ legendary performance on New Order’s ‘World In Motion’, of course).

Speaking of which, the official hierarchy of English football songs goes as follows:

  1. ‘Three Lions’
  2. Fat Les, ‘Vindaloo’
  3. New Order, ‘World in Motion’
  4. If we have to do a fourth, it’s And & Dec’s ‘On The Ball’, which isn’t great but it’s not bad

With the UK as it is at the moment (recovering after a global pandemic; that little thing called Brexit, if everyone remembers that; a Government that seems to be playing its own tournament of ‘Who’s The Shittest?’), it’s actually nice to be able to enjoy a little bit of national unity. Football is the only space where we can all sing about how we love our country without going a bit Laurence Fox on it. With Scotland and Wales in it this year, it’s all to play for; let friendly the rivalry begin. My own Scottish dad has already kicked off the trash talk in the family WhatsApp group.

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Speaking to NME back in 1996, when the song was originally released, 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.’

Perhaps that’s the best and most English thing about it: it’s patriotic in the most English way ever. It’s apologetic and realistic; it’s putting our hands up and saying, “Look, I know that sometimes we can be a bit crap and luck is rarely on our side here, but how good would it be if we won.”

Now, as we prepare to watch the lads take on Europe’s best over the next couple of weeks, after everything the country has endured, you can hear it, quietly, being whispered on the wind, those piano chords getting louder, and those three words we all long to hear: “It’s coming home.” 

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