‘Three Lions’ by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner with The Lightning Seeds remains one of the most universally loved football songs, 15 years after it was first released.
The original version and the 1998 re-recorded version both reached Number 1, and are still beloved in England.
Both versions are musically similar but they are, in fact, two songs with very different meanings and attitudes when analysed.
“It’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home…”
Both versions of ‘Three Lions’ incorporated this famous line, but they are used in completely different contexts.
Euro ’96 was held in England, so the phrase “football’s coming home” symbolised the tournament coming to England – the home of football.
The lyric celebrated the fact that the tournament was being held in England and some of the world’s finest players were playing in some of England’s most famous stadiums.
The song was not just a celebration of English football, as it was also celebrating a whole spectrum of cultures sharing the Euro ’96 experience together.
It was not solely about winning the tournament – as it was also about taking part, playing good football, having hope and being proud of your country. It had a complex meaning and it could be interpreted in more ways than one.
The 1998 World Cup, however, was held in France. This gave a completely different meaning to the phrase “football’s coming home” in the 1998 version of ‘Three Lions’.
The song was no longer about Euro ’96 coming to England and hoping to win, but it was about the sheer expectancy of winning the World Cup.
Rather than bringing a football tournament back to its spiritual home, the song was just about England winning the World Cup.
The humility seen in the original ‘Three Lions’, therefore, disappeared in the 1998 version, as there was now an expectancy to win. This was seen by the worshipping of Alan Shearer and Paul Ince, rather than Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore, in the re-recorded version.
This could be more than just a coincidence, though. England, before Euro ’96, failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and made an early exit during Euro ’92. They were seen as underachievers and – in the original version of ‘Three Lions’ – Baddiel and Skinner thrived on the “under-dog” tag.
The duo knew that England would disappoint but their hopes were built on past heroes and achievements, rather than the current squad.
They did not blindly think that England would win – as their dreams were built on hope, pride and determination. It was not a case of following England, just because they were tipped to do well.
The 1998 version of ‘Three Lions’, however, showed that England supporters may have been spoilt by their semi-final appearance during Euro ’96.
The expectancy, suddenly, was on winning the World Cup, no matter what had happened in the past. Everything else, apart from winning the World Cup in 1998, was shrugged off as irrelevant.
And, rather than singing about ”thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming” in 1996, Baddiel and Skinner were now singing ”no more years of hurt, no more need for dreaming”.
“Bobby belting the ball and Nobby dancing…”
The level of detail in the two songs and videos are also very different.
It is so different that these two songs could represent two different kinds of supporters.
The 1996 version of ‘Three Lions’, for example, had a greater awareness of the history of the English football than in the 1998 version. This can be seen in the name-dropping of several England legends during the verses:
“So many jokes, so many sneers
But all those oh-so nears
When your down, through the years
But I still see that tackle by Moore
And when Lineker scored
Bobby belting the ball
And Nobby dancing”
It is far more aware of the history and heritage of the side, as they always mentioned players from the past.
The promo video to the 1996 version of ‘Three Lions’ also shows nostalgia, due to the video’s “Roy of the Rovers” feel and Ian Broudie’s replica 1966 England shirt.
The video portrays three people who are obsessed with their own side and only care about them, as no other teams are given a second thought.
They live and dream for them, whether they are at the match or not, and they are knowledgeable about the club’s heritage and culture.
And they will stick by the side, no matter what, as they are used to the inevitable disappointment with a healthy dose of cynicism and belief.
When you compare it to the lyrics of the 1998 version, the difference is striking:
“Talk about football coming home
And then one night in Rome
We were strong, we had grown
And now I see
Ince ready for war
Gazza good as before
Shearer certain to score
And Psycho screaming”
In contrast to the 1996 version, every player mentioned – in the above verse – was a current England international.
This is likely to be the case because it was a sequel – and mentioning the likes of Tony Daley, Carlton Palmer and Tony Dorigo would have made less of an impact – and it is also similar to how Premier League supporters are.
The mood is far more optimistic and the willingness to win is far more urgent, with the main focus being on the present rather than the past. The song, as a consequence, feels far less observational and sincere.
The attitude seen in the video is very different, too.
The promo video was set in France – showing the match’s build-up rather than showing the range of emotions while watching the match – and it has a cockier and more chauvinistic feel.
This is shown by the usage of the publicised ‘Kuntz’ joke, which trivialises the historical rivalry with the German national side. The video portrays a bunch of middle-class supporters who are going to France to have a laugh, rather than to watch football.
“But I know they can play, ’cause I remember…”
In the defence of the 1998 version of ‘Three Lions’, though, the lyrics had to be different as it was a sequel.
It was just a shame that this was the only way it could have been done.
The 1998 version of ‘Three Lions’ ended up being a soulless and arrogant re-recording, as it failed to grasp the grassroots of football.
It is not anyone’s fault, however, as ‘Three Lions’ is one of these songs that could have only worked at one specific time and any other re-recording would have had diminishing returns.
Despite many modern football songs being similar to the 1998 version of ‘Three Lions’, the original version still strikes a chord.
It benefited from having genuine sincerity and saying what the fans on the terraces really felt. It was recorded for true football fans, by true football fans.
The failing of the re-recording of ‘Three Lions’ was that it was overly smug, as the song could only work if the focus was not just on winning the tournament.
The original version worked, because it was the right song at the right place and time; the concept of singing “football’s coming home” made sense in 1996.
The real legacy of the two versions of ‘Three Lions’, though, is that even the most passionate and loyal football supporter can turn into a narcissistic one, after briefly flirting with success.
Let’s hope that this never becomes a plague.