how 'three lions' came to soundtrack a glorious summer of possibility
For a few wonderful weeks, 'Three Lions' was no longer simply an ironic pose to cloak ourselves in as we anticipated traipsing home from the pub after another early exit. It was a powerful, potent reminder of one of pop music’s most perfect peculiarities.
In the end, it happened as it was always destined to: mildly ignoble defeat, and post-pub deflation.
Until yesterday’s defeat to Croatia, things looked different. Things looked hopeful. For once. The England team will now get a smattering of polite applause when they deplane on a dreary morning in West Sussex early next week. Gareth Southgate has a year of strangers wishing him the best when they bump into him buying another batch of waistcoats. Harry Kane can strut around the penalty area next season with his chin held high. None of us have to pretend to care about Wimbledon.
These past few weeks have seen the entirety of England beginning to resemble a vast, sweat-soaked, skin-scorched Martin Parr exhibition. From Wooton Fitzpaine to Warrington, no one has done anything but drink lager, retweet old Jordan Pickford material about American Pie, and wrestle with the fact that for the first time since 1996 we have a national team who look OK. Who look better than OK, in fact. A young, dynamic, exciting national team who want to actually, you know, play football, and have been doing it oddly well. In a World Cup of all things.
Just like in 1996 -- that oft-hazily-remembered summer of bucket hats, blue skies, and Gazza’s balletic, bobbing, and utterly brilliant goal against Scotland -- the queasy realignment of our hopes and dreams has played out to a soundtrack composed by a song composed by two comedians and the bloke from the Lightning Seeds.
The thing to remember about Three Lions is that Three Lions is a bad song. While it’s certainly better than Vindaloo, Sven, Sven, Sven, or We’re On the Ball, so is unanesthetized root canal surgery, syphilis, and the William Shatner cover of Common People. The faux-naive Beatles-y harpsichord intro, the lumpen plod of the chorus, the adenoidal bleat that is Frank Skinner’s singing voice; none of these things make for good music.
Lyrically saccharine, melodically boorish, and the reason why the phrase “football’s coming home,” seems to have been forcibly tattooed on the skull of every English citizen somewhere between losing to Belgium and beating Sweden, Three Lions is, in many ways, an abomination.
Comparing it to New Order’s World in Motion, which might use John Barnes’ verse as a means of distancing itself from being a “football song” but is definitely, categorically and undeniably still the best football song ever, is like comparing the Brazil team of 1970 to Sunderland under David Moyes.
And yet, Three Lions is a powerful, potent reminder of one of pop music’s most perfect peculiarities: context is everything.
"For a few wonderful weeks, it was no longer simply an ironic pose to cloak ourselves in as we anticipated traipsing home from the pub after another early exit. The message became an implicit and unwittingly Churchillian two-fingers up at the Tory government, Brexit, and anyone who dares suggest that an England team won’t actually, literally, really win the World Cup."
Just last Tuesday I found myself stood in a pub I used to frequent as a student and, as we jostled at the bar for plastic pots of beer, the jukebox played Three Lions on repeat. Each and every time I glimpsed another future-sculptor from Surrey moronically bellowing about “JOOOLZZ REMAYY STILL GLEEEEMIN” and “FIIIIIIRTY YEAAAAARS OF URRRRRRRRT,” promising themselves they’d never “STOOOOOP ME DREAMIN’” I became increasingly convinced that not only did I hate the pub, but that I hated football, and the World Cup, and England itself.
Then the unthinkable happened. Forced to confront a long-running locus of abject national failure, Eric Dier’s nerve and Gareth Southgate’s tight waistcoat provided us with a sight that had seemed unimaginable for the best part of thirty years: England had won a penalty shootout. It had happened. It had really happened.
Within seconds, the jukebox blurted back into life. Except now, that harpsichord felt like being massaged by God and a young Brian Wilson at the same time. Except now, I was bellowing along, too. Except now, I believed it was coming home.
Initially a joke, and a joke born of a kind of Englishness that we rely on like a pensioner nipping to the shops on a windy day in Widnes does her frame, the nature of “it’s coming home” has morphed as the tournament has progressed.
In the past it never necessarily meant actually literally bringing football home, of course (we are, after all, a nation of valiant losers who’d rather fail with dignity than attempt to win with style. Or at least we were till this World Cup). Rather, “it’s coming home” is a phrase that seeks to establish a kind of unity within the context of a country that can find ideological San Andreas Faults between market towns divided by a spool of floss: whether we call it ‘tea’ or ‘dinner’ we are all united by inevitable disappointment in the end.
For a few wonderful weeks, it was no longer simply an ironic pose to cloak ourselves in as we anticipated traipsing home from the pub after another early exit. The message, and the song it was taken from, became an implicit and unwittingly Churchillian two-fingers up at the Tory government, Brexit, and anyone who dares suggest that an England team featuring Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, and Danny Rose won’t actually, literally, really win the World Cup.
And we won’t win the World Cup, and we probably won’t win the third place play off against Belgium either. But in years to come, is that what you’ll remember? No, it isn’t. What will linger on long in the memory is that sensation of possibility. That feeling that if you say something enough it might come true.
What you’ll take from this glorious summer is the fact that every so often, something happens in life that feels real and true. And somehow, sometimes, that real and true thing, is soundtracked by David Baddiel and Frank fucking Skinner.
It didn’t come home. Not quite. But it doesn’t matter. It will one day.