Just before the beginning of the present Euros, at around 11.30 at night, I heard outside my house some men loudly singing. Normally this would lead to me checking that my door was stringently locked, but as I sat there considering my security options, I began to recognise that what they were singing were words that I had co-written. Perhaps by now you can guess what those words were. Football was coming home, to my actual home.
I was fairly sure, however, that — by the sound of them — the very drunk choir was not aware that I actually lived in earshot. I considered coming out and making myself known, but as I mulled over whether or not this was a good idea, they went away. You might think that would’ve been a glorious surprise, but just as likely is the possibility that they’d have thought: who on earth is that old bloke trying to join in with our singing? Okay, he seems to really know the words, but this is just weird. Because I’m not sure that the younger generation are aware that Three Lions was written by myself, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie. I’m not sure they’re aware it was written by anyone. I think they think it’s a song that has existed forever, like Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne (yes, I know these were also both actually written by someone).
The song has undeniably lasted a long time. I get the sense that people now think of it as kind of football’s version of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody. It isn’t, in one important way. Christmas does actually happen every year. Whereas the England team playing well, not so much. Noddy Holder isn’t dependent on Gareth Southgate finally deciding to play Jack Grealish for his royalties. The longevity I would put down to two things: the music, and the lyrics (see what I did there?). Ian’s extraordinary musicality created a melody that was already full of yearning and sadness and hope, and Frank and I went in the same direction.
We wanted to write a song about the real experience of being a football fan, which is not, with the greatest respect to various previous anthems, that we’re going to win it, this time, more than any other time, but more likely that we’re going to lose. Three Lions is a song about loss: about the fact that England mainly lose. We as fans — as English people — invest an enormous amount in the idea of England, and then, as experience suggests, England let you down. We know this and yet we still — as the 98 version put it — believe. Football fandom is this, it’s magical thinking, it’s hope over experience.
We as fans invest an enormous amount in the idea of England, and then, as experience suggests, England let you down.
If you watch footage of the crowd singing the song at Euro 96, you’ll notice that there is a lot of flag waving. Flags, now, are very associated with a particular node in the culture war, and it would have been the case back then too that the Cross of St George had some bad associations. But a combination of circumstances, of which the song is part, created at that tournament a very unusual thing, maybe unprecedented and erased as a possibility by more recent cultural trends, which is a kind of non-aggressive, non-triumphalist patriotism. It’s a kind of oxymoron, Three Lions, a vulnerable anthem, and if many fans wave a Cross of St George to that, it doesn’t I think feel like what they’re waving is a symbol of nationalism and aggression. It was a bittersweet pride being expressed, not a vanquishing, overcoming one.
Which brings us to England-Germany. That game can be infused with the worst of Englishness, as evinced by the Daily Mirror’s Achtung! page in 1996. But actually, it’s the most appropriate place for the vulnerable anthem to be sung, because it’s the memory of the oh-so-nears against that country in 1990 and 1996 that are being called up by the lyrics. It was in 1996 that I remember hearing the chant being sung in the most intense way I have ever heard it, when Shearer scored after two minutes in that Euro semi-final. Then it was like the crowd were singing Football’s Coming Home, like a mantra, like a real magic spell, a sense that if we chant it fast enough and powerfully enough it will happen. It of course didn’t. Three Lions stayed a song of sadness, and hope for next time. Next time, now, is tonight. I hope to hear it sung like that again. By the drunk men outside my house, and by Wembley.
David Baddiel’s show Trolls: Not The Dolls resumes in September, tickets from davidbaddiel.com. His books Jews Don’t Count and Future Friend are out now.