Three lions is once again being sung lustily by England fans
Three simple words but yet so much more. It’s back and it’s everywhere, but why?
England fans in Nizhny Novgorod celebrate after their match against Panama. Photograph: PA
It’s coming home. Three simple words but yet so much more. Twenty-two years after it was first written, the refrain to three lions is once again being sung lustily. You can hear it from the stadiums in Russia whenever England are playing, or at home in pubs and those weird human pens they call “fan zones”. It is being shared between people as a greeting, daubed in dust on the back of white vans, posted in group chats and, naturally, turned into a meme. It’s back and it’s everywhere, but why?
When David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, of the TV show Fantasy Football, sat down with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds to record a song for Euro 96, they were indulging in an act of guerrilla marketing. The official theme song was “We’re in this Together” by Simply Red. But despite boasting Alan Shearer in the video and Hugh Masekela on guest vocals (the song had a distinctly Afro-pop vibe), Mick Hucknall’s effort only reached No 11 in the charts.
Three lions, meanwhile, with its jaunty terrace rhythms and tour through English football history got to No 1. And it pushed on from there. Three lions became the song not only of the tournament but of the country that summer. When it was played before England’s semi-final against Germany, the Wembley crowd belted out every word like it was the national anthem.
In trying to pin down the reasons for the comeback of three lions, nostalgia does seem a good place to start. “Growing up in England in the 90s was fun”, says Owen Blackhurst, the features editor of Mundial magazine which – among other things – curates late-20th-century football for an audience just about old enough to remember it. “It’s like a chapter in a history book when everything was great. There was good music, great festivals and the sun was shining. Nowadays things are very different and people want every little piece of that time they can get.”
Blackhurst suggests that there is not only a fondness for the time but also for the team, of the Terry Venables side that boasted not only the telepathic strike partnership of Shearer and Teddy Sheringham but also Paul Gascoigne in his Indian summer and, at the back, the grizzled Arsenal stars Tony Adams and David Seaman. They not only won games but also played good football. “People look back and think ‘that team was great’,” he says. “Partly that’s because all they’ve seen since is crap England teams, even in 2006. But it’s also that people are more invested in tactics nowadays, thanks to things like Football Manager and Fifa, and Venables was out there playing with wing-backs. It’s not just nostalgia, there was something so fresh about that team.”
There is another team now playing with wing-backs, of course, and it is managed by Venables’s right-sided centre-half Gareth Southgate. Perhaps the pleasures of Euro 96 are now long enough in the past that they can be seen through rose-tinted spectacles. But perhaps it is also that the current England team are evoking memories of that time. After all, when Skinner and Baddiel returned to the studio to re-record three lions in 2010 (admittedly in the motley company of Robbie Williams and Russell Brand), it bombed.
“Personally I hadn’t enjoyed an England game since 2002,” says Blackhurst. “The football was bad, obviously, but everything seemed negative, from Fabio Capello treating people like kids, to Roy Hodgson picking teams to keep people happy. That’s changed now. From the style of football to Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling mucking around on social media, the whole thing just feels more progressive.”
The youthful, diverse squad (made up of players from all regions of the country), the quick technical football and, most importantly, the sense that the squad are enjoying themselves make this a very different tournament for England fans. It has given them licence to enjoy themselves too and, for one of the authors of that once-again ubiquitous anthem, it’s about time.
“The England team has been in the wilderness and the song always runs in parallel with the team,” says David Baddiel. “You can’t sing about it coming home when it’s lost. The difference between three lions and all other songs before it, including World In Motion, is it was the first song properly to be about football and actually to describe the experience of being an England fan.
“We know rationally that we tend to disappoint but somehow we keep on hoping that things might be different this time. And that element of the song, of defiance, of hope in the face of history, picks up energy if history suddenly looks like it might turn round. Even though the song comes from a place of vulnerability, it’s central refrain can be chanted at the right moment – now, for example – when fans want to throw caution to the wind.”