It’s coming home, it’s coming home … You know how it goes. Hang on, though: it came home, didn’t it? In July, when the Lionesses beat Germany with a dramatic extra-time winner at Wembley to win Euro 2022. It was England’s first major trophy since Bobby Moore, Jack and Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Gordon Banks, Geoff Hurst etc won the World Cup in 1966. With all those years of hurt finally over, David Baddiel said he was happy for his song, Three Lions, to be “put to bed”.
Guess what, though: it just got up again, for the World Cup in Qatar, and for Christmas. We will come to the new version – and Qatar – later.
But first, rewind to the summer of 1996 when a wave of Britpop, new laddishness and optimism was washing over the country. The Football Association asked Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds to write a song for the European Championship. He came up with a catchy melody and a chantable refrain. The comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who presented the comedy football TV show Fantasy Football League, wrote lyrics that were yearning and plaintive and hopeful about what it was like to be an England fan. “It’s coming home” referred to the fact that this was the first major international football competition to be held in the UK since 1966, and also to the hope that success and glory might return.
The fans adopted the song and took it to heart. When England beat Scotland in the group stages, it echoed around (the old) Wembley Stadium: “I have never been somewhere where something so spontaneous – this is our song, the people’s thing – happens. It felt amazing,” says Baddiel.
Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie, a little less fresh of face but perhaps wiser inside, have come to the Guardian’s offices to talk about the song that never went away. “I’ll let them do most of the talking,” says Broudie, gently. “They’re good with words.” He sits, looking on wryly through his sunnies, occasionally chipping in almost apologetically but … well, wisely. “There’s a little bit of community when you’re all singing: ‘It’s coming home.’”
Baddiel and Skinner are good with words. They josh and rib – at times it is as if those years have melted away and they are back on that Fantasy Football League sofa, a set that transplanted their home life (they shared a flat at the time) to television. Good times. “I’m not much of a looker-backer, but I would say, for me, that was pomp,” says Skinner. “I was red hot in 1996.”
I wonder if there is anything they look back at less fondly, that makes them wince? “Are you talking about Jason Lee?” asks Baddiel.
“That doesn’t make me wince, it makes me ashamed,” says Skinner.
On their show, they repeatedly ridiculed the Nottingham Forest player Jason Lee’s hairstyle; in some sketches, Baddiel appeared in blackface. It was, they admit, inexcusable, sustained, ugly, racist bullying. I’m not going to go into it massively here: Skinner has talked about it frankly and extensively in a recent Guardian interview; Baddiel has a programme about antisemitism on Channel 4 on Monday in which he addresses his own racist transgressions by visiting Lee to listen and to apologise.
“It happened because we used to dress up as cartoons of footballers all the time, and we didn’t think how that is different when you are impersonating a black person. That was bad and mistaken,” says Baddiel.
“We fucked up. We have had conversations about how it happened; I certainly don’t want to defend it in any way,” says Skinner.
By writing an England football song, were they somehow associating with the darker underbelly of hooliganism and nationalism? Skinner reckons the opposite. “I think 96, that song and – strangely – the cross of St George seemed to bring less menace than the union jack. Maybe it’s because I’m Catholic. That was the first time it felt more family. I’m not saying it can’t all go off at games – I was at the final of the men’s Euros last year – but there was no one chanting ‘No surrender to the IRA’ or stuff like that. That rightwing thing seemed to go in 96.”
Baddiel agrees. “Because of things that have happened since, like Brexit and the hardening of the far right, it might look different now. But, at the time, the music and the vulnerability of the lyrics meant people were singing a song that was patriotic, yearning after this idea of England that was not nationalist or aggressive. It was a song about losing. As a result, the singing of it and waving of flags felt to me like a type of gentle non-aggressive patriotism.”
Of course, England lost to Germany on penalties in 1996. But the dream lived on. “Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming; Labour’s coming home,” Tony Blair told his party’s conference that autumn before a landslide new dawn in the spring.
At the last World Cup, Croatia’s captain, Luka Modrić, said his team had found the refrain disrespectful, but used that to motivate them to win the game and send England home.
“I’m just happy that Modrić knows our song,” says Skinner. “But we are making an enormous fuss about whether this is a jingoistic, arrogant thing. I think England can describe itself as being the home of football historically. The game we know, the first league, first cup competition, the rules, the first football association were all formed in England. That’s history – it doesn’t give you ownership.”
Broudie gets a word in: “If the Olympics went to Greece and they said it was coming home, I don’t think anyone would have a problem.” Skinner reminds us that Greece did host the Olympics – they went home in 2004, and no one had a problem with it.
Baddiel: “Although I did a documentary …”
Skinner: “Oh, you’ve done a documentary about everything …”
Baddiel: “I have. It was called David Baddiel on the Silk Road, in which people say they invented football.”
Skinner: “That’s a different argument – stories about people kicking a pig’s bladder around …”
OK, whatever: the song certainly came home and stayed home. Over a quarter of century, it wormed its way into the nation’s consciousness, lying dormant for most of the time, but then breaking out for the competitions, most recently – and most joyously – at the Women’s Euro 2022. “It’s coming home, it’s coming home …” chanted a new, maybe (even) nicer generation of England fans in the place it all began. Manager Sarina Wiegman’s post-final press conference was interrupted by a spontaneous victory conga of singing, dancing Lionesses. “It’s what they naturally turned to,” says Baddiel, proudly. “Not Sweet Caroline but Football’s Coming Home, to sing in that moment of joy.”
It’s that moment of joy that kicks off the video for the new version, Three Lions (It’s Coming Home for Christmas). “I’ll be honest, I had to slightly be convinced about doing it,” says Baddiel.
Skinner: “I would say I dragged Dave kicking and screaming.”
Baddiel: “My son said, ‘If you do this I’ll never speak to you again.’ But I sort of love Christmas. I think it’s partly to do with being Jewish and not celebrating Christmas when I was young.”
Skinner: “For me, to do a football song is regarded as a bit tacky by a lot of people. To do one that is also a Christmas song is a double tackiness. You know in mathematics two negatives make a positive …”
Baddiel: “So it’s classy.”
In the video, they are back in the flat – a younger Skinner and Baddiel on the sofa, a younger Broudie in the kitchen making the tea – then joined by today’s Broudie! They sing together. “In that scene where there’s two of me, I keep thinking I’m not that one [the older Broudie], I’m that one [the younger Broudie].” It’s lovely, and moving, a duet between the same person at different stages of his life. Who is at the door? Older Skinner and Baddiel! All right, lads?
The new lyrics acknowledge the Lionesses’ pride, but the hurt for the men.
Then comes Baddiel’s verse: When they decided on Qatar / Should have checked VAR
It’s too hot / And too far
What? Really? I mean, it is too hot in Qatar, certainly – that’s why the World Cup is on now, messing up domestic football seasons – but are those really the issues? “It is perhaps not the most extreme denunciation of that particular state,” admits Baddiel. “But then it is a football song and I think lyrics about modern slavery and persecution of gay people would have been hard to get in.”
The mood drops a little.
Baddiel: “We are holistic people. I can say that if I was asked if I’d take a ticket to this World Cup final, I wouldn’t go. I don’t particularly want to support that state, what it does and what it represents.
Broudie: “In some way it has brought these issues up, and highlighted Fifa corruption.”
Baddiel: “And it is complicated. That can feel like a get-out, but it is. It was in Russia after they invaded Crimea. The [winter] Olympics were in China; the worst ethnic cleansing in the world at the moment is of the Uyghurs in China.”
Skinner engages seriously. “I think on one hand the, ‘We are more civilised than you approach’ has not always turned out well for this country in history. I am also not a fan of the very patronising: ‘They don’t know any better – don’t get involved in the culture.’ ‘Don’t get involved’ and ‘it’s their business’ are dangerous. I attended many anti-apartheid events when I was a student. No one said: it’s their culture, we shouldn’t tell them what to do and, eventually, like they say about people in Arab countries, give them 50 years and they’ll be as civilised as us. No one said that about apartheid. They said: ‘Fucking hell, this needs to end tomorrow.’ So you could argue that you don’t accept it and it does need to end tomorrow and we shouldn’t be there, or you can also be wary about this superior western view of: ‘We’ll tell you.’”
The Lightning Seeds wouldn’t play Qatar; Skinner wouldn’t do a standup gig there, or a David Beckham. “I’ll be honest: if they said, ‘Come over and be an ambassador for the World Cup,’ I wouldn’t do it.”
At least Harry Kane’s going to wear a rainbow armband. Skinner says: “I think Phil Foden before the first game is going to sing [adopting voice of Kermit the Frog], Why are there so many songs about rainbows … No he isn’t.”
“I wondered where that was going,” says Baddiel, jollification returned.
No, they don’t wear rainbow armbands in the video. “But we have two Lionesses in the video, both of whom are gay and out,” says Skinner, referring to Jess Carter and Beth England. “It is difficult for men’s football to be pointing the finger at homophobia when players are frightened to come out. Women’s football has no problem; I’ve never heard of any of the many out gay female players being abused.”
As well as Lionesses, the new video has a kid’s choir and another cameo from hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst, now 80, as Santa, obviously. Jules Rimet’s still gleaming … at the top of the tree. Maybe it is tacky, but it is also lovely and makes me want to cry a little bit because it is about the passing of time, and survival and still dreaming.
There may be a few new lyrics, but it is the same old song, the best football song, and that’s why it is still going. Skinner, Baddiel and Broudie realise that, no matter what else they do – books, television, records – this is going to be the one that’s remembered. The thing they will always be best known for will be Three Lions.
Skinner says: “If I’m desperately trying to establish who I am to someone, it would be my first port of call. If I’m in, say, a pub in Birmingham, it’s no good saying: ‘Maybe you know my poetry podcast?’”
Broudie hasn’t said a lot, but as the man who sowed that seed, wrote the first notes, he can have the last word. He has made some brilliant music, and it used to annoy him that he would probably always be best known for a football song: it’s coming home, it’s coming home … “I used to think that wasn’t right, but when I look at it calmly and see the musicality of it, how it can be adapted by a brass band or a kids’ choir, I feel in a weird way, maybe it is my finest hour.”