Gary Barlow’s official England 2014 World Cup song, endorsed by the FA and produced with a team of celebrities and former football stars, has achieved something truly unprecedented – getting dropped on the quiet just two weeks before the start of the tournament.
For many, the reaction to the news has been that the song was bad, but surely not that bad. Gary Lineker was being his usual overly-generous self when he described it as “a rousing tune that will get the nation behind the team”, but in the past the FA has stuck by some shocking offerings right to the bitter end (usually via penalties).
It has prompted speculation that Barlow’s recent involvement with the Inland Revenue – specifically being ordered by the High Court to pay back millions of pounds which he sheltered in the £340 million Icebreaker tax avoidance scheme – has had something to do with the decision not to release the single.
“Greatest Day” was at least made available to download on iTunes during the Sport Relief fundraising effort in March, when it was described as “the official World Cup song”, but it has now even been removed from there.
It means that with less than two weeks to go until England’s opening game against Italy, there is still no official single people can buy to support the team – a state of affairs only before seen in 2010, when Fabio Capello ruthlessly decided that focus must not be taken away from the football itself.
But it seems highly unlikely that “Greatest Day” would have been so unceremoniously abandoned if it had attained the enduring brilliance of Euro 96’s “Three Lions” or the unofficial 1998 World Cup offering from Fat Les of “Vindaloo”.
Here we rank the full spectrum of official World Cup songs that England fans have had to enjoy (or endure) from worst to best, and decide if Barlow’s brightest might have deserved a better fate.
1982: This Time (we’ll get it right) - Performed by the England squad
Few people remember that Kevin Keegan, when he wasn’t saying how much he’d love it if we beat them, actually released two singles prior to “This Time”.
They didn’t fare very well, but that didn’t stop the FA putting a majestically-permed Keegan at centre stage for “This Time”. They didn’t get it right.
Besides the unenthusiastic vocals – and the video shows that, apart from Keegan himself, many of the squad would much rather have been elsewhere – the lyrics plumb new depths for World Cup song nonsense.
One verse genuinely goes: “This time - more than any other time - this time, we are going to find a way to get away. This time, getting it all together, to win them all.” Read that again. What does any of it mean?
After England had failed to qualify for both the ’74 and ’78 World Cups, the ’82 song came at a time when the country was desperate for any semblance of national success – helping it to an unbelievable number two in the charts.
It didn’t return the favour, though – and England went out in the second group stage.
1986: We’ve Got the Whole World at Our Feet - The England squad
More awful singing from apparently dispirited players, lined up and made to say that “there’s not a single team that we can’t beat”.
Ambitious to say the least – a confidence that was lacking in the song itself, given a safe and sadly cheesy keyboard backing.
The song charted at 66 – amusingly – a record low for an official England World Cup song.
And while technically it was accurate to say they could have beaten any team, in the end they didn’t, losing to Argentina at the quarter final stage. Perhaps instead of trying to beat the “whole world at their feet”, they should have stuck to the original and used their hands – as Maradona managed to do.
1970: Back Home - The England squad (for the first time)
“Back Home” really was a piece of World Cup song innovation, featuring for the first time the England squad itself singing in apparently miserable unison.
The lyrics are actually quite good – if a little simplistic, and speak to the expectation the squad felt from “the folks back home” to repeat their triumph of four years earlier.
In the end it wasn’t to be – and the players’ confidence cannot have been helped when they had this dirge played back to them.
1998: (How Does It Feel to be) On Top of the World - 'England United'
With a strong act to follow in Euro 96’s “Three Lions”, the FA went big budget, forming the “supergroup” of Ian McCulloch from Echo And The Bunnymen, Simon Fowler from Ocean Colour Scene, Tommy Scott from Space and ALL of the Spice Girls.
Spice Girls fans hated the fact that their idols were essentially relegated to providing backing vocals, however, while fans of music generally slammed it as the worst kind of vanilla pop.
Football fans booed the song when it was played at Wembley stadium, and players including Ian Wright and Rio Ferdinand were quoted describing it in less than flattering terms.
In the end it was eclipsed by a reworking of “Three Lions” and “Vindaloo”, both unofficial but excellent. Really, it didn’t stand a chance.
2002: We’re On The Ball - Ant and Dec
Such is the lack of quality in the official England World Cup back catalogue it is only now, this far down the list, that we come to Ant and Dec.
Something clearly went badly wrong in 2002, and the FA decided to go for a song that involved neither singers nor footballers.
An incredibly bizarre video involves the admittedly harmless duo hatching a plot to impersonate Sven Goran Eriksson and his assistant Tord Grip and, for reasons which aren’t clear, dressing up like Bond villain henchmen in a phone box.
The song went for one thing – an irritating but catchy refrain of “we’re on the ball” – and it actually seems to have paid off. It came third in the charts – coincidentally only beaten by singles from Will Young and Gareth Gates of Pop Idol, a show Ant and Dec presented at the time.
1966: World Cup Willie - Lonnie Donegan
Given that it was a novelty song essentially dedicated to an over-sized stuffed toy, “World Cup Willie” could so easily have been a complete disaster.
But performed by a masterful Lonnie Donegan it succeeded in so far as it inspired England to their first and only World Cup victory.
Both mascot Willie, a lion wearing a Union Jack, and the song were huge successes, and endure to this day as telling snapshots of a happier time for England fans.
The song was also revitalised by Lonnie Donegan Jr in 2010 – but this time round was, like the team, unquestionably a flop.
2006: World At Your Feet - Embrace
Getting a relatively popular alt-rock band to do the England World Cup song was admittedly an unusual choice, and Embrace’s “World At Your Feet” was initially met with damning verdicts from fans who felt it was “too slow” to be belted out in the stands.
But the song was a success in managing to be both interestingly unusual and blessed with a catchy chorus. It came after two desolate tournaments (in terms of songs, at least) and compared favourably to the in-your-face shouting of Ant and Dec in 2002.
The song was met with critical acclaim, but its performance could not be matched by England’s “golden generation” of Gerrard, Beckham, Lampard and co, who went out to Portugal in the quarters.
1990: World in Motion – New Order
There’s little doubt that “Three Lions”, by Baddiel and Skinner with the Lightning Seeds, is the greatest unofficial England football anthem of all time. But for FA-endorsed World Cup songs, top of the pile has to be New Order’s “World in Motion”.
From John Barnes’ seminal rap to its overarching message reaching beyond simple nationalistic pride, it was the forward-thinking innovation that paved the way for the simpler, catchier hits that followed later in the 90s.
The song topped the charts and stayed there, with a Paul Gascoigne-inspired England reaching the semi-finals and that infamous loss on penalties to West Germany.
How does Greatest Day compare?
David Baddiel, of “Three Lions“ fame, has described Barlow's 2014 effort as “a bit rubbish”.
It has not even been selected for The England Players’ Playlist, an official album of “upbeat chart hits and dance anthems” personally hand-picked by Wayne Rooney and his teammates, which was set to be released today.
It certainly isn’t as dreary as “Back Home”, as lacking in enthusiasm as “This Time” or as mind-numbing as “On the Ball”.
But at the same it does include some characteristically dreadful player contributions – Lineker’s solos in particular aren’t the easiest on the ear.
But what really sets “Greatest Day” apart is its staggering lack of originality. Not only is it a rehashing of a Take That song – immediately off-putting for many fans – but with Michael Owen, Gary Pallister, Carlton Palmer and half of the Spice Girls featuring it feels like the star line-up is from another era as well.
Perhaps the fact that the song was never entirely theirs to begin with made it easier for the FA to drop it once the time came to release the single.
Whatever the motivation, as the only official World Cup song to ever fail to make it all the way to the tournament, “Greatest Day” has to go down as the worst anthem to “get the nation behind the team” that England have ever had.