The 10 most significant England football songs ever

The best and worst of England hits, from the leftfield stylings of New Order to the tongue-in-cheek vibes of Fat Les

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It’s fockin’ coming home, lads.

Or at least that’s what every football-loving English bloke will tell you now that England are into their first major tournament final since 1966, and with the final against Italy held at Wembley tomorrow, it might well be time for the end of – erm – 55 years of hurt.

The success of the England team at the rescheduled Euros is such that it’s even caught the attention of those more likely to relate with a certain David Mitchell sketch than anyone that routinely follows the game. Look at the football, it’s gonna move!

But then that’s just the effect that major tournaments have on people. It’s all in the national culture: Dreading playing the Germans (other countries are available), spotting England flags in barely appropriate places, hoping that the games on the BBC and not ITV and, more than anything, the great tradition of the England football song.

During tournaments Three Lions becomes a sort of de-facto national anthem, screamed in the street by drunk lads and memed upon by everyone else, even if they have no idea what a Jules Rimet is or why it would gleam, yet many more songs have reached the charts over the years since the first official England song was released in 1970.

The various attempts, both official and unofficial, have included proud anthems sung by the England team, spruced-up terrace chants, uninspired rewrites of popular hits, cheesy rap verses and, on the odd occasion, something that’s actually quite good in its own right.

So with the Euro 2020 final just around the corner, here’s a FEISTY review of the ten most significant England songs ever recorded, complete with a reminder of exactly how England flopped at each particular moment in time. Still, better luck tomorrow, right?

Back Home
1970 England World Cup Squad

Here’s where it all started. Back Home was the first popular England song and started the tradition, for a couple of decades at least, of the England team recording a song ahead of a major tournament, a trend that would spread to other countries, clubs before FA Cup finals, and in some cases even individual players (I see you, Kevin Keegan and Ian Wright).

Back Home is a run-of-the-mill pop song that just happens to be performed by the likes of Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and, as prominently heard on the recording, Jeff Astle. The message is that the team will aim to live up to the pride and expectations of the fans “back home” during their time in Mexico, where the 1970 tournament was hosted. (England would ultimately lose to West Germany in the quarter-finals.)

At a time when skiffle and Cliff Richard plagued the charts, Back Home fit in fine, although the huge sales were pure novelty factor, a show of support from the nation for the heroes of ’66. The B-side Cinnamon Stick is more interesting, if only because it’s a love song sung by a gaggle of tone-deaf football players. “Sweet as sugar, twice as nice”, so they reckon.

The instrumental melody was fittingly revived in the 1990s for the theme music of Fantasy Football League, the programme that gave Baddiel & Skinner the platform to have such success with Three Lions in 1996. But more on that later.

Released: April 1970
UK Singles Chart: No. 1
FEISTY Rating:

All the Way
England Football Team & The Sound of Stock Aitken Waterman

The year was 1988, and England were heading to the European Championships. It wouldn’t be a tournament without the traditional England team song, but the concept had become a little passé by the late 1980s. Cue the arrival of Stock Aitken Waterman, the superstar pop producers, to modernise the concept and save the day!

Or that was the plan. Stock Aitken Waterman were ubiquitous in 1988, producing hits on a seemingly weekly basis for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and, less memorably, Brother Beyond and Hazell Dean. Yet not everything they touched turned to gold, and while audience fatigue to their identikit style hadn’t set in widely yet, their collaboration with the England squad was a definite flop.

The gang vocals that had worked on Back Home in 1970 simply didn’t marry up to the synthesized SAW sound, and with England making a tepid nil-point exit in the group stage, audiences simply wouldn’t buy it. A No. 64 chart peak meant the one-time cash cow of the official single needed a rethink, resulting in a radical change of approach for Italia ’90…

Released: 1988
UK Singles Chart: No. 64
FEISTY Rating:

World in Motion
New Order

Going into the 1990 World Cup the English public’s usually unwavering love of football was under threat. The Heysel stadium disaster had led to a several-year ban from European football for English clubs, the Hillsborough disaster had claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, and football hooliganism had become a mainstream political issue.

Italia ’90 wouldn’t solve all of English football’s ills, but it did play a significant role in reminding the public of the beautiful side of the game. Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun Dorma memorably rung out ahead of the games on the BBC and England delivered handsomely on the pitch, the likes of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne starring as England threatened to win it before a crippling loss to Germany on penalties in the semi-final.

New Order’s World in Motion would prove the perfect soundtrack. The Press Officer of the Football Association asked Factory Records if the band would record a football song, and the label’s head immediately agreed. Most of the England players refused to take part, although this proved to be a non-issue, as New Order rejected the concepts of old and instead did what they do best and made, well, a New Order song!

Liverpool’s John Barnes starred with a rap verse that was surprisingly good and helped World in Motion to become the first truly great football song. It was also, in the era of Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, the first cool football song, one that fans could proudly listen to or belt out at games. The days of the team singing out-of-tune were over, and World in Motion remains, perhaps, the greatest England song to this day.

Released: 21 May 1990
UK Singles Chart: No. 1
FEISTY Rating:

Fog on the Tyne (Revisited)
Gazza & Lindisfarne

23-year-old Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne was one of the stories of the 1990 World Cup finals, dazzling in his performances for England before memorably shedding tears as he received a yellow card that would have ruled him out of the final had England made it there. He duly became a household name and a national treasure, as the nation pinned its hopes on him as England’s new footballing megastar.

After the tournament his star was so high that it made perfect sense, apparently, for him to release a pop single. John Barnes had rapped on World in Motion, so why couldn’t Gazza do it on a remake of the 1970s folk rock single Fog on the Tyne? The original band stepped in to collaborate as he paid homage to his Gateshead roots, even though he was now playing for Tottenham, and it sold well enough to hit No. 2 in the charts in October 1990.

“Sitting in a sleazy snack bar stuffin’ sickly sausage rolls”, remarks Gazza in the opening line. “In a dirty old town on the back of the Tyne setting my sights on goal-goal-goals”, he adds. It’s complete cheese, but it’s endearing cheese, living up to Gazza’s cheeky-chappy persona and providing, as far as football songs go, a decently fun hit. Maybe it’s just my own Tyneside roots talking, but you can file this one under “impossible to hate”.

Released: October 1990
UK Singles Chart: No. 2
FEISTY Rating:

Three Lions
Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds

Six years on from the magic of Italia ’90 the Football Association asked The Lightning Seeds, a popular Britpop band regularly found in the lower reaches of the top 40, to record a song for the first tournament hosted in England since 1966.

The Lightning Seeds’ vocalist and songwriter Ian Broudie penned a melody that he felt would resonate with fans, and then rejected the involvement of England’s players, instead tasking comedy duo Baddiel & Skinner with writing the lyrics. The pair were already favourites of English football fans thanks to their series Fantasy Football League, which had lampooned and parodied club football since 1994 on BBC television.

The result was a song so iconic that it remains the undisputed anthem of choice for England fans to this day. Three Lions’ success lay not just in its classic hook (“It’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home”), but in the decision to avoid another hedonistic celebration of English football. The lyrics instead reflected on the bittersweet experiences of the average England fan, something everyone could relate to, while the references to Bobby Moore and Gary Lineker laced the song with cross-generational nostalgia.

Three Lions got off to a slow start with the England faithful, until the team turned on the style in their third group game of Euro ’96. England were on their way to a 4-1 win over a strong Dutch side when Wembley broke out into strong chants of “it’s coming home”, in front of Baddiel and Skinner no less, and the rest is history.

Germany would ultimately win Euro ’96, seeing off England again in the semi-final, and forward Jürgen Klinsmann has since claimed that the German fans sung Three Lions as they paraded the trophy back home. It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but that makes this such a perfect football song that not only has it won over England fans to this day, it’s made an indelible mark on other countries too. A better anthem will never be written.

Released: 20 May 1996
UK Singles Chart: No. 1
FEISTY Rating:

Three Lions ’98
Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds

Three Lions was such a success in 1996 that Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds did it all over again just two years later. This time it was the 1998 World Cup, held just over the channel in France, and with young talents like Michael Owen and David Beckham added to the side that did so well at Euro ’96 there was real hope for the tournament.

Baddiel & Skinner had now moved to commercial broadcaster ITV in a lucrative deal, and would present their new series Fantasy World Cup live during the tournament. This led to brilliantly chaotic television moments like a drunk Brigitte Nielsen, a rude John Lydon being hooked off-air during a commercial break, and a surreal performance of The Prodigy’s Firestarter by former England striker Jeff Astle.

Three Lions ’98 was similar to the original, with updated production and new lyrics that reflected English football going into the new tournament. The reference to Gazza being “good as before” would fall flat when he was left out of the final squad, but the nucleus of the song and the ubiquitous hook were still there and as memorable as ever.

The prevailing view among fans is that Three Lions ’98 isn’t as good as the original, but then sequels rarely are. Still, it captures much of the same spirit as the 1996 version, and the Gareth Southgate reference is particularly pertinent in the modern day. The broadly forgotten 2010 version, however? Let’s just forget that ever happened.

Released: 8 June 1998
UK Singles Chart: No. 1
FEISTY Rating:

Vindaloo
Fat Les

“Can I introduce you please, to a lump of cheddar cheese?” is still one of the greatest lines in pop history, and I will accept no argument to the contrary.

Fat Les were a cultural supergroup of sorts, comprised of Blur’s Alex James, artist Damien Hirst, and actor Keith Allen. Allen, surely involved in more England football songs than any other person, had already co-written World in Motion back in 1990 and appeared on Black Grape’s England’s Irie in 1996, so the group had the experience to produce a fan hit.

Vindaloo was originally intended as a parody of football chants, but wound up becoming one of its own, going into direct competition with Three Lions’ 98 in France. The feud went so far that the lyrics to Vindaloo were distributed outside of the stadiums before England games, a point that Baddiel & Skinner took great glee in mocking during one of their live ITV shows during the tournament.

Three Lions ’98 won out in the end, but Vindaloo is daft and fun enough to be well-loved to this day, even by those who don’t remember England’s second-round loss to Argentina on penalties. It also has arguably the best music video of any football hit, a parody of The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony featuring appearances from Matt Lucas, David Walliams, Edward Tudor-Pole and, if you look carefully, a 13-year-old Lily Allen.

Released: 8 June 1998
UK Singles Chart: No. 2
FEISTY Rating:

We’re on the Ball
Ant & Dec

The official England song for the 2002 World Cup brought Ant & Dec, then much-loved television presenters but once chart regulars under their former alias of PJ & Duncan, out of a five-year musical retirement for a light-hearted pop single.

This was Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England, and hopes were high going into the tournament, helped not least by an emphatic 5-1 win over Germany in 2001. That optimism is reflected in a boastful single that captures the zeitgeist around England at the time perfectly, with multiple adoring remarks about the new Swedish manager.

We’re on the Ball isn’t exactly a great song but, in the aftermath of Three Lions, Ant & Dec played their hand as well as they could. Rather than go toe-to-toe with the fan’s immovable anthem of choice, the duo wisely kept it fun, with cute references and a daft music video. It’s more of a cultural time capsule than something you should choose to listen to, but any song with an Emile Heskey reference can’t be all bad, right?

Released: 27 May 2002
UK Singles Chart: No. 3
FEISTY Rating:

Come on England
4-4-2

This tuneless cover of the Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1982 classic Come on Eileen featured DJs from the UK radio station talkSPORT, who apparently rammed it down their listener’s throats when it was released to coincide with Euro 2004.

Covering a popular song with new lyrics always feels like a cop-out, and Come on England is as vapid as you might expect. “Like ’66 we’ll get our kicks”, it reckons, before listeners are invited to “strike it like Owen” and “lob it like Lampard”, in reference to the so-called “Golden Generation” players of the day.

It failed to become the popular terrace chant it was shamelessly conceived to be, as the fans in Portugal stayed loyal to Three Lions. It didn’t help matters that a traditional “Come on England!” chant already existed, one which continues to ring out to this day.

A remake of The Farm’s 1990 Madchester classic All Together Now was the official track for Euro 2004. Originally penned about the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I, when men from the opposing sides famously played football, and it remains a popular song in its own right. It’s especially surprising, then, that it fared poorly in the charts, stalling at No. 5.

Released: 7 June 2004
UK Singles Chart: No. 2
FEISTY Rating:

Shout
Shout for England

There was something faintly tragic about English football at the turn of the tens. The high hopes of the Sven era had given way to apathy and the embarrassment of failing to qualify for Euro 2008, and while England at least made it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa the reward was a languid 4-1 loss to Germany in the last-16.

It was perhaps fitting, then, that 2010 would be the first year since 1966 in which England went to the World Cup without an official song. After all, nothing could top Three Lions, so why put time and money into a song that would fail to capture the imagination of the fans?

The official void was filled by Shout for England, an ensemble featuring Dizzee Rascal and James Corden. Dizzee was at the height of his commercial success, while Corden had been performing sporting skits as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief and was already something of a Marmite figure with the British public.

Shout borrows its chorus from the Tears for Fears classic of the same name. It’s used less distastefully than you might expect, even if it’s odd to use a Cold War protest song in such a context. Dizzee delivers some passable rap verses to help move things along, even if one or two of the references (Aaron Lennon, anyone?) seem hilariously dated in hindsight, but the overall production is very of its time and even feels a little rushed to boot.

Shout was never going to ring out from the terraces, especially given the vuvuzelas at the 2010 tournament, but it did at least reach the top spot of the UK Singles Chart, something no football song since has come close to doing.

Released: 9 June 2010
UK Singles Chart: No. 1
FEISTY Rating:

Katy FEISTY
Katy is the Editor of FEISTY. She's been a self-confessed music geek, stan and encyclopedia for as long as she can remember, loving both new and older sounds alike. Katy started out as a contributor to various magazines before founding FEISTY as an independent, female-led platform for new music.

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