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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Updated: Sep 10, 2022

When I worked in the Philippines, only I could have the luck that sent me to the one country in South East Asia that preferred basketball. There were however, several pockets of footballing resistance - certainly enough to fill a stadium when LA Galaxy - complete with Becks - came to play the national team. Admittedly, the screaming seemed more like a Bieber concert than the early rounds of the Carabao Cup but no less enthusiastic.

A LOT less swearing...

Accordingly, when the World Cup rocked around in 2014, I declared our agency "The official Manila-based advertising agency for the England football team" and decked the place with flags of St George and a film compilation of great England football moments and songs playing on the screen in reception. I appreciate that this may come across as an unlikely show of colonial despotism but I did allow anybody who was a passport holder from any of the other competing nations to opt out. Furthermore, after England were eliminated (there was no 'if' only 'when') they were perfectly entitled to switch allegiance.

It's fair to say that the staff, comprising almost entirely of Filipinos, were bemused at my latest announcement and clearly put this irrelevant gibberish down to heatstroke.

I hope however, there will be some small residue of the feeling of tournament spirit out there and they join most of my own fellow countrymen crowding around screens all over the world to see England compete in their first tournament football final since 1966. To put that into context for you, I was 10 weeks old the last time this happened...

"Football is coming home" as the song says...

There has been a lot written about "Three Lions" the song from which that line is taken but there is no doubt that it has been the most popular of all the songs produced to celebrate English endeavours at international football tournaments. I remember the day it really caught fire with crowds (because I was in the middle of them) was at the Euro 96 quarter final between England and Spain. When after frankly some surprise that England had played so well in the tournament up to that point, the singing of what was comfortably the nation's number one record, began before the game and then crescendoed after England's first ever win in a penalty shoot out that took them through to the semi-final.

There's something in that song that makes it so easily to assimilate for fans everywhere. The Lightning Seeds were an interesting pre-Brit Pop band who had made some peppy upbeat singles - one of which "The Life Of Riley" had brilliantly soundtracked "the Goals Of The Month" section on BBC's 'Match Of The Day' - and seemed a good fit for the Euro 96 tournament which was the first to be played in England for 30 years.

Apparently, it is seen as an arrogant song elsewhere - mainly because of the "coming home" line - but actually it is anything but arrogant, it is the lament of the England football fan at its most basic level.

A twisted swirl of Hope atop a heavy biscuit base of Disappointment.

The genius of the record was bringing in Baddiel and Skinner - who at the time were the laddish hosts of the unmissable "Fantasy Football" show - who despite their enthusiasm were never going to be the Everly Brothers. Instead, they -especially Baddiel - simply sang with the gusto that every chant on a football terrace has ever asked of their choirs. Nothing too fancy, nicely repetitive and no unnecessary key changes or modulations to throw anyone off.

Its ubiquitous popularity is well and truly deserved as it manages to avoid grating and somehow capture all that's best about being a football fan.

That's why it's still the second best tournament record ever...

"Second" you say?

Very much so. Because this was the England FA at the height of their hit-making powers following on from 1990's immaculate EnglandNewOrder number one "World In Motion". It may not have had the chantability of "Three Lions" but the surprise stems from the audacity of its contemporariness so that it still cannot fail to excite. John Barnes even manages to rescue his then-sinking rap career post "Anfield Rap" with a sublime performance. Apparently, there was a competition between some of the England players to perform it - including the normally indecipherable, Peter Beardsley.

Gary Lineker was apparently not involved as he was promoting his own single "If We Win It All". Bet you don't remember that...

Everything about "World In Motion" from its sentiment to its video brings back fantastic memories of the hot summer of 1990 when England nearly did surprise us all again. Most surprising, is that it was also a hit in Germany where it was preferred to their squad's own oompah offering.

This record was an incredible reshaping by the FA who had grimly clung on to the idea of the squads (not normally made up of stunning nor willing vocalists) to perform their own sub-choral numbers. This had started well with "Back Home" in 1970 and it was then so long until England appeared again that they basically repeated it with "This Time" in 1982 - a song and production that could not have been further away from the new romantic post-punk zeitgeist.

As England's disappointing tournaments became more frequent so did the accompanying records. By the time "All The Way" came out in 1988 and never dented the Top 40 and this is despite being produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman who were, at that moment in time, capable of giving a baked potato a hit record.

But something happened in 1990 and in teaming up with New Order, the England FA managed a "Blood On The Tracks" like mid-career revival.

All of this makes 1998 so strange.

You probably remember World Cup 1998 as the summer of "Vindaloo". by Fat Les (an odd conglomerate of Keith Allen, Damien Hirst and Alex James - basically Groucho Park Rangers) and the rebooting of "Three Lions '98". Yet the official song "(How Does It Feel To Be) On Top Of The World" managed to be one of the least memorable songs for a tournament ever.

This is despite going back to the playbook of using contemporary artists. You had forgotten all about it, hadn't you?

However, the downbeat ragbag of Brit-Pop tailenders from Ocean Colour Scene and Space coupled with doom merchants, Echo & The Bunnymen (then having something of a Brit-Pop resurrection) managed to create a song that seemed to do everything in ts power to avoid a hook.

If you doubt my analysis, then bear in mind it also managed to put the then all-conquering Spice Girls on the record and succeeded in giving them the only song in their career not to reach the Top 2. At this point in time, they could sell anything from crisps to cushions to scooters but even the most successful marketing concept of the 90s could not shift enough units of this record.

Watch the video, even Geri (who always seemed excited even at the sound of a car alarm) looks faintly embarrassed and wishes she was at home with her tea towel dress. Like that England team, it promised so much and fell flat.

What's worse is that the FA continued on their later career slump with an equally lethargic number from sub-Oasis dirge-mongers Embrace, with "The World At Your Feet" in 2002. Go on, hum that one, if you can.

I'd rather listen to Germany's 1994 World Cup Squad collaboration with the Village People - not Jurgen Klinsmann's finest hour. This squad were world champions at the time...

Awkward? Uncharacteristically ironic? Or a trailblazer for footballing diversity?

You choose...

By the time 2006 rolls by they seem to have worked out that you need a little bit more "everyman" in the song's construction and so Baddiel & Skinner were subbed for the ever-popular, Ant & Dec, who gave us the more tonally suitable "On The Ball" which at least felt as if it had been written by people who had actually been to a match.

But was it too jokey?

So enter the demon, himself, Simon Cowell who somehow commandeers Dizzee Rascal into producing a mash-up of the belting "Shout" by Tears For fears with the rather less terrace-friendly "No Diggity" by Blackstreet. And to ensure laddishness, insert James Corden, who though one of the most polarising people on the planet, at least is a fan of the game. I don't know whether it's Cowell, Corden, Blackstreet or the sheer naked gall to update the template of "Three Lions" with a laddish presenter and the current music trend that meant it missed the mark but I honestly still quite like this. It is at least. rousing.

I think its failure comes from this being the least likeable England World Cup squad ever.

The best songs work because they are true - even "Back Home" which acknowledged that the team had had to travel all the way to Mexico to play and were still relying on the supporters goodwill . Old-fashioned maybe but it had the feeling of a rousing music hall curtain closer. "Three Lions" works because it is so accurate - it's the hope that kills you. The insight of being a long suffering fan has never been better expressed in musical form and by those who so closely resembled our terrace-going selves.

Claiming to be "On Top Of The World", going "All The Way", "Winning It All" or having "The World At Your Feet" is the kind of arrogance that the rest of the world always feels England has. The truth is the opposite - resigned despondency and nervous predetermination are the England fan's prevailing moods They don't like songs that have the potential to embarrass them. "Shout For England" is at least nothing more than a call to get behind the team.

All "Three Lions" needs is to update "x years of hurt" so no wonder it resonates tournament after tournament.

However, after this Sunday, let's hope there will be "NO MORE years of hurt" and we English shall be singing it ironically... and we love a bit of that.

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Jul 11, 2021

Very timely and interesting. I, too, hope that the years of hurt are coming to an end, but I am not confident about it!

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