At one point during last night’s match the commentator remarked ‘if you’re old enough to remember Euro 96 and Italia 90' when I realised that I remember both of them very clearly and I am now officially Getting Old.
One thing I do remember from then, though, is that there was a time when we weren’t singing ‘football’s coming home’ whenever England did well, and where that phrase comes from and what it (originally) meant.
By the 90s, football — and particularly English football — was in the embryonic stages of becoming the sporting and marketing juggernaut it would become. On the pitch, the introduction of the back-pass rule and other tweaks had opened up and sped up the game (watch pre-1990 football to see how weird it feels when a keeper picks up the ball as it’s passed to him by his own defender) while off the field the tragedies of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough, the birth of the Premier League and the influx of Sky’s cash had seen hooliganism pushed away from the game and seen the old stadiums and their terraces transformed into new seated palaces.
But English football was still parochial. The twenty Premier League clubs were managed by 17 Englishmen, 2 Scotsmen and 1 Irishman, and‘foreign’ (i.e not UK or Irish) players were still a novelty and a rarity: big name stars of all nations went to play in Italy or Spain, not England. Aside from Man United winning the Cup-Winners Cup, English sides had made little impact in European competitions (especially the new ‘Champions League’ stage of the European Cup) and were still adjusting to being back in Europe after the post-Heysel ban. The England team wasn’t impressing much easier, with the highs of Lineker’s Golden Boot in 1986 and the semi-final in 1990 followed by the lows of Graham Taylor’s reign: a poor performance at Euro 92 followed by failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Having won the right to host the 1996 European Championship, the FA were probably quite glad that England didn’t have to suffer the vagaries of a qualification process again and could instead concentrate on using the tournament to highlight the new look of English football — a hooligan-free sport played in expensive new stadiums, under the slogan of ‘Football Comes Home’ as the birthplace of the sport welcomed a major tournament for the first time in thirty years. All they needed now was a song to soundtrack this new era.
Enter David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. And hold them on the side of the stage while I backtrack a bit. One of the legacies of Italia 90 and the after-effects of the 80s tragedies was the growth of a new culture around football. Often epitomised by Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch or by the fanzine culture that developed around many teams, this crashed football fandom into a proto-hipsterism, creating a space where it was OK to be a football supporter now people no longer thought that ‘football fan’ was synonymous with ‘hooligan’. The New Lad — that Britpop-listening, retro-shirt wearing, Loaded (‘for men who should know better’)-reading twentysomething — wanted a way to enjoy football semi-ironically, and he found it in Fantasy Football League, a TV show that’s possibly the perfect encapsulation of Britain in the mid-90s, when Friday night post-pub telly was still a thing and everything came with a coating of irony.
It started as a show about celebrities choosing their own fantasy football teams, but week by week that element of the show dwindled away as Baddiel and Skinner’s ironic and absurdist take the week’s football news became the whole of the show. Bringing them together with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds — creator of happy-sounding songs about sad things — was the perfect way to capture the mood of mid-90s English football.
I’m not going to by cynical here — the original version of the song works perfectly. It’s a song about the lies you have to tell yourself to be a football fan. Yes, it says, we might be poor now, but there were times in the past when we were sporadically good, and that might happen again, but even if it doesn’t, isn’t it great that we’ve got this tournament happening here? ‘Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming’ is a perfect encapsulation of that fan experience — however bad it gets, you’ve always got your dreams that it might just happen this time.
And the video is about that experience too, starting with a copy of the Fantasy Football League set-up of Baddiel and Skinner in the lounge of their pretend flat, while Broudie replaces Angus ‘Statto’ Loughran as their kitchen-based sidekick, then moving on to watch the game in a pub (another 90s innovation with more games now on TV at times when you could gather in the pub with friends to watch them) before closing with a ‘dream’ sequence featuring current England players re-enacting classic moments in the style of Fantasy Football League’s ‘Phoenix From The Flames’ segment. It’s a song about the perennial and enduring hope of the football fan, fuelled by childhood memories (Skinner and Broudie were 9 and 7, respectively, at the time of the 1966 World Cup) of things being great and the possibility of that coming around. It’s also about hope for football generally — that it coming home can be a unifying force once more. ‘I know it was then, but it could be again.’
And then England defied the expectations to do well at Euro 96. An opening draw against Switzerland was followed by a win over Scotland fuelled by a sublime moment from Gascoigne and then Holland, the home of the Total Football that everyone knew England would never be able to properly match, were brushed aside and made to look ordinary in a 4–1 thrashing, and Spain (then still the chronic underperformers of European football) were beaten on penalties, to exorcise the memory of Italia 90. England met Germany in the semi-final, Baddiel and Skinner sang ‘Three Lions’ before the game, the crowd (including the Germans, who liked the anthem too) bellowed ‘Football’s coming home’ throughout…and England lost on penalties. Another oh-so-near as England throw it away, adding to the story of Three Lions, yes?
Maybe it would have been, but two years later, amidst a glut of unofficial England anthems in the run up to the 1998 World Cup, a new version of Three Lions appeared.
On the surface, it’s the same song, but in the details it’s now radically different. The spoken sections aren’t a compilation of England doing poorly over the years, but a direct reference to Euro 96, and a claim of ‘football’s coming home’ as a distinctly English thing. Then, after the original song was about a fan’s hope that things might be good, what’s the first line of the new song?
“We still believe…”
Hope and belief are very different things for fans. Every fan hopes their side are going to storm through and win the league, the cup, the tournament, the game when they’re 2–0 down, but you can have hope in something being possible without that being a belief that it will definitely come about. And then the chorus comes in and ‘thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming’ has become ‘no more years of hurt, no more need for dreaming’. The failure in Euro 96 and the 0–0 draw against Italy in Rome that secured qualification for the World Cup aren’t oh-so-nears or their preludes, they’re moments of great triumph. The touchstones aren’t ‘here’s some good things from the past’ (Moore, Lineker, Charlton) but an acclamation of the current team that’s both absurdly overbaked (‘Ince ready for war’) and a massive hostage to fortune (‘Gazza good as before’ just before he was dropped from the World Cup squad and ‘Shearer certain to score’ before he scored twice, including a penalty, in four games there). Even the video stops being about the general experience of being a fan to being about the specific experience of being a fan at France ’98, complete with a shockingly unfunny football against a group of comedy Germans in mullets, moustaches and Kuntz shirts.
(It’s interesting to speculate on what changed between 96 and 98. On the initial Twitter thread that sparked this post, I somewhat facetiously suggested Tony Blair but I think there was something else going on, though it might just be the ‘what exactly do you do for an encore?’ question that lies at the heart of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore)
A song that was ‘well, you never know, it might happen’ optimism has become ‘yeah, it definitely will happen’ conviction, and it’s so much weaker as a result.
The interesting part comes in that we now have a culture in which the two different versions of the song, with their two different perspectives have become merged together, their six lions fighting to all make it onto the shirt. The memory is of 1996 — England flags flying at Wembley (and this was when England supporters decisively shifted from the Union Jack to the Cross of St George), everyone singing along and feeling good about the football despite the thirty years of hurt — but the meaning they attach to that is the 1998 one of we’re great and we’re going to win, the triumph of belief over hope. Football coming home isn’t a slogan for a tournament, it’s a statement of intent and a prize to be won, but it’s also a great stadium chant that’s not to the tune of Seven Nation Army, so lets keep singing it anyway.