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Twenty-five years of hurt: Why has there not been a great football song since ‘Three Lions’?

David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds’ 1996 anthem remains England fans’ steadfast song of choice at international football tournaments. Louis Chilton looks at why so many attempts to take its crown have failed miserably

Saturday 10 July 2021 06:00
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<p>It’s coming home: Ian Broudie, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel photographed in 1998, announcing the re-release of ‘Three Lions'</p>

It’s coming home: Ian Broudie, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel photographed in 1998, announcing the re-release of ‘Three Lions'

It may not be the same old story, but it’s definitely the same old song. When England’s men’s football team beat Denmark on Wednesday, setting up a Euro 2020 final against Italy, it was a familiar refrain that rang out around Wembley and across the nation: “It’s coming home.” The wayward crooning of Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and The Lightning Seeds resurfaces every time England compete in a major football tournament, hauled out like an old box of Christmas decorations. With England in their first final since the glory of ’66, “Three Lions” is back with a vengeance.

The question is why a 25-year-old song remains so popular – and why nothing has been able to take its place in the nation’s heart. Some have tried, of course. Fat Les’s “Vindaloo”, Ant & Dec’s “We’re On The Ball”, Dizzee Rascal’s “Shout”, Embrace’s “World at Your Feet”, and this year’s curdled throwback, “Southgate You’re the One” by Atomic Kitten, are among those to have thrown their hats into the ring. The results were roundly terrible. None have stuck – certainly not to the same dogged extent as “Three Lions”. They’re novelty songs, but nobody’s laughing.

Despite this lack of pop pedigree, football and music have continued to co-exist, hand in hand, as they always have done. Music is alive in the stadiums, in pubs, belted out tunelessly yet powerfully by groups of often (though not always) inebriated fans. No charting single could ever hope to match the sheer exuberance of a stadium full of people warbling “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard / He slipped on his f***ing arse / And gave it to Demba Ba” to the tune of “Que Sera Sera”. (Liverpool fans got their musical revenge with the arrival of Virgil Van Dyke, whose name, satisfyingly thrown over the scansion of The Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town”, forms one of the modern game’s most enviable chants.)

There are many reasons for the success of “Three Lions”. For one, it’s a simple, repetitive tune, easily learnt and formed into a chant (by the deliberate design of Lightning Seeds songwriter Ian Broudie). Something like Krept & Konan’s “Olé (We Are England ’21)”, by contrast, is too lyrically fast and difficult to be appropriated by your average football-going crowd. “Three Lions” was also bolstered by Baddiel and Skinner’s firm, authentic association with football in the public consciousness  – something that, say, Atomic Kitten can’t quite hope to match. But what’s more – crucially – “Three Lions” recognised something fundamental about football that most songs miss: it’s not just fun and games.

Not to go all Roy Keane on you, but football isn’t meant to be “nice”. Disappointment, resentment, bitterness, anger, frustration, schadenfreude: these are integral parts of what makes watching football such a compelling national pastime. To support a club, even one of the biggest, most reliably successful football clubs, is to subscribe yourself to numerous episodes of day-ruining misery every season. This, of course, is what makes the winning worthwhile – but it also provides its own sultry masochistic draw. And almost as sweet as the joy of victory is the thrill of seeing a rival do badly, watching some despised player finally get their comeuppance or hubristic manager lose his rag on the touchline. “Three Lions” might not get into the muck of all football’s myriad grudges and psychoses, but it’s still a song about failure and the strange, hopeful torment of supporting a country that seems to always bottle it.

It’s this same sense of honest cynicism that makes some of football’s best-known musical anthems so enduring. “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, adopted by West Ham, is one of the bleakest sports hymns you could imagine -  “I’m forever blowing bubbles/ Pretty bubbles in the air / They fly so high / Nearly reach the sky / Then like my dreams, they fade and die.” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, synonymous with Liverpool FC, is a song about resilience, not triumph - the dreams at Anfield may not fade and die, but they do get tossed and blown (by Loris Karius, for instance). This is what many failed football songs are missing: the misery.

Gareth Southgate’s England are, by all accounts, a nice team. But the baggage surrounding them is noxious – at least, some of it is. England fans booed their own team for suggesting that Black lives matter. England fans shined a laser at the Denmark goalkeeper’s eye to try and prevent him from saving a penalty kick. English fandom is tied up in jingoism and colonialism in ways that no one ever really likes to unpack. In the grand scheme of things, England are one of the world’s great villains, and yet we root for them to win regardless. This is all part of football.

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Tonal nuance is, all often, antithetical to the idea of a pop hit - it’s no wonder many failed football songs take such a bland cheerleading approach. But “Three Lions” stands out because, for all its limitations as a piece of artistry, it managed to convey a multifaceted idea with extreme simplicity. It’s coming home. In just three words, the song manages to evoke decades of longing, hope, frustration, arrogance, pride, and pain. The nation’s “30 years of hurt" have stretched to 55, but maybe, just maybe, they could soon be over. Just don’t kid yourself: there’s plenty more where that came from. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

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