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Football’s Coming Home: The swirling enigma of England’s iconic football song

Rose-tinted glasses are wonderful. Those heady days of legging it up from football practice into the playground, desperately scrabbling through the parked cars and wondering faces for a sign of Spain’s penalties; Psycho’s bulging arteries; Uri Geller; back when we actually thought peroxide was the height of fashion, and Karel Poborsky’s wavy unkempt curls most certainly were not. 

Euro 96 was meant to be vindication for six years earlier, but agonisingly fell short in the most dramatic fashion as one of football’s most worn-out cliches repeated itself again – Germany win on penalties. But in the background, there were swelling chords. Gradually building up, settling nerves but ratcheting up expectation. An instant classic you could belt out at the top of your lungs: Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home).

One of the reasons we love this sport is the tapestry of emotions woven into every snapshot we’re given – from a packed out Wembley to a drenched Moss Lane with pie and chips steaming. Take the rose-tinted glasses away, and what’s left? Still a game, but some part of the spirit will have gone. 

English media have an unerring habit of building up players and teams only to knock them down again in destructive fashion. Every tournament is the same – “This could be our year!” – and yet 1966 remains the only tangible reward. Thirty years of hurt have almost doubled. Have they been wasted though? Listen to the iconic terrace song, and England fans will find your answer.

So what is it that makes the Lightning Seeds’ collaboration with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner hit the spot so perfectly? Just a catchy tune isn’t enough. Without getting too technical about the musical structure, it is a wonderfully balanced track that mimics the swell of a crowd breathing the ebb and flow of a tense encounter, building erratically but inevitably towards a powerfully uplifting burst of pride and hope.

There are so many visual elements to the track that enhance the mood. Ian Broudie’s perfectly timed tea bags thrown into the cups, Geoff Hurst’s cameo in the pub, iconic clips of commentary and moments – both tragic and celebratory – drag you into the story. An updated version was recorded for France ‘98, which embellished the success further.

“That’s probably part of the longevity of it too – two versions, both as good as each other. An original and then a sequel that focuses on the next tournament yet also reflects on the previous. It tells a story – a standard one for an England fan, promise and then disappointment – and it takes you along for the ride. It’s the commentary for me. It takes you right back to the games listening to the same words. “The flags of St George are flying all around me…”

– Heart of Football editor Simon Toye

Older England songs that have matured with age bear little actual believable relevance to the game itself. New Order’s World in Motion is an admittedly brilliant track, but has some illogical lyrics in the cold light of day, with some fairly cringeworthy tactical advice – “You’ve got to hold and give, but do it at the right time” – wedged in to give it a football ‘edge’. Peter Beardsley’s expressionless face urging viewers to “express themselves” isn’t exactly tub-thumping stuff, and it is hard to get stirred up by “we know what you can do”.

Where it falls a long way short of Three Lions is it’s lack of adaptability to become a terrace chant. The less said about Diamond Lights the better…

The references in Three Lions are both evocative of England’s historic place in the sport’s long tale, as well as being relatable to modern-day fans. Rightly proud of being the birthplace of the codified game, English supporters deserve to celebrate their place in football history. Emotive as it may be for them, however, it has been misunderstood by foreign fans as a sign of arrogance.

During the 2018 World Cup in Russia I had numerous debates that raged on the Moscow metro with a good friend from Germany, who was sickened by the sound of Three Lions. He insisted that it was sung as an arrogant claim that England would win everything before them, when in reality its birthplace is far more central to its message and ethos; football, the organized sport as we know it, really *was* returning to England. 

Variations of football have been found for centuries through the history books, from the bloodthirsty Calcio Storico on the dusty streets of Italy to the Ancient Mayans who juggled decapitated heads of vanquished tribal leaders in gorey entertainment. Of course it impossible to distill every founding influence from history, but to deny England’s significant role would be churlish.

Perhaps England will once again, at long last, lift a major trophy; perhaps they won’t. Perhaps others will claim they were the true birthplace of the beautiful game; perhaps they’re right. What Three Lions allows England fans to do is dream of football coming home – whatever that might mean to each individual person.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

13 comments on “Football’s Coming Home: The swirling enigma of England’s iconic football song

  1. Nuno Gomes

    A great song, my favourite footie anthem, it is more about hope than anything else, as thats all us England fans have left – hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew Flint

      Absolutely! What so many non-English fans seem to miss is how simple the song is – we clearly don’t expect to ACTUALLY win anything! Do we?…..


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