How we made Three Lions: David Baddiel and Ian Broudie on England’s Euro 96 anthem

‘I heard German fans singing it after they knocked England out. I had to resist throwing a TV out of the window’

Ian Broudie, songwriter, the Lightning Seeds

I knew that New Order had done a football song [Italia 90’s World in Motion], but I was hesitant when the FA asked me to do Euro 96. Fantasy Football with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel was big on TV at the time, so I thought they should sing it and the band could go uncredited. But everybody was like, “No. It’s got to be the Lightning Seeds as well.”

I had the melody. It felt like a football song with a chorus that would make for a good chant. Liverpool were playing Leeds at Anfield midweek, so I invited Frank and David up to the studio. Frank came but David wasn’t prepared to miss his beloved Chelsea, who were playing at home. After the match, I took Frank back to the studio, played him the idea on the piano, and we agreed we’d got something in the making.

The FA said: “How many footballers do you want to sing on it?” But we were like: “No, we don’t want any of that.” I didn’t want it to be England-istic, or nationalistic. In my mind, the line: “It’s coming home…” – this was the first time England had hosted an international football competition since 1966 – is more about being a football fan, which for 90% of the time, is losing. Most of being a football fan is disappointment.

When we got knocked out [5-6 to Germany on penalties in the semi-finals] I was at Wembley, and I totally shut down emotionally. Back at the hotel, I was lying down on the bed and I heard, [sings]: “Three Lions on a shirt…” and remember thinking: “It’s nice they’re singing it even though we lost.” I looked out of the window and it was all German fans. I had to resist throwing a TV out of the window.

I love that it’s become a song about so many things. I don’t think it was ever just about England: American baseball teams have adopted it; Werder Bremen rewrote the words one year. The lyrics seem to have gone into the vernacular. No one said “years of hurt” before. When we first recorded it, lots of people said to me – even journalists: “What’s the three lions in reference to?” We’d say: “Well, they’re on the shirt.” It’s amazing that when you think of Three Lions, people still think of the song rather than the shirt. (Ian Broudie was talking to Rich Pelley)

David Baddiel, comedian, writer and “singer”

We got a call in the Fantasy Football office from Ian Broudie asking us if we would like to write the lyrics. He had been chosen to write the England song but he thought that at the time, we were kind of the nation’s football fans, so we should do the words. We were very excited, but cheekily – particularly given my vocal talents – said we wanted to sing as well. Amazingly, he said yes.

Pain and hope … England fans before the quarter final clash with Spain.
Pain and hope … England fans before the quarter final clash with Spain. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

When we sat down to write, the first thing me and Frank talked about was reality: the reality of being an England fan that is. The show was about the reality of being a football fan and the way we approached the song was the same. Instead of writing an idealised or triumphant song, like most of the ones beforehand, with their visions of winning the cup, this time more than any other time, we decided to write a song about assuming that we, England, were going to lose. Because that’s what experience had taught us. Three Lions, really, is a song about magical thinking. About assuming we are going to lose, reasonably, based on experience, but hoping that somehow we won’t. That’s why the lyrics move from: Everyone seems to know the score / They’ve heard it all before / They’re so sure / That England’s going to blow it away … To But I remember… – those fragments of glory in England’s footballing history that, above and beyond your own rationality, give you hope.

Which is why I think that when it caught fire, chiming with other fans’ experience, and people sang it at Wembley, it had this strange, brilliant effect – which is it’s a football song, for a country, that doesn’t feel nationalistic or triumphalist or aggressive. It’s upbeat but it retains throughout something melancholy and vulnerable. The first time I heard it sung by 78,000 people I could hear that too: the pain and the hope, as well as the joy. (David Baddiel)

Euro 2020 begins on 11 June. The Lightning Seeds’ Jollification 25th anniversary tour restarts in September; David Baddiel: Trolls, Not the Dolls tour restarts on 10 September.

• This article was amended on 21 June 2021. Werder Bremen, not Bayern Munich, rewrote the words to Three Lions.


David Baddiel and Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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