The opening of “Three Lions ‘98” is a spot of justified bragging – the hopeful murmurs of the original replaced by a stadium in full cry: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home…”. In musical terms, Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie really had won the cup – a football song that had been taken up by fans as a genuine chant. It made a sequel – or rather, an update – understandably tempting.
It’s an update that has to play slightly generous games with recent history, though. The original “Three Lions” mined glorious memories of three decades to fuel bittersweet, defiant belief. The new version has two years to work with, like a football song version of the ‘difficult second album’, and its brief is to send the lads and fans off to France on a high. So while the original had World Cup victory to draw on, “Three Lions ‘98” is ultimately a song hymning a 0-0 draw at the end of a qualifying campaign. A very important, hard-fought 0-0 draw, to be sure, but a definite narrowing of focus. Where the ’96 song climaxed with a wide-eyed, heartfelt plea, “I know that was then… but it could be again”, here in its spot we get, “We can dance Nobby’s dance / We can dance it in France”. The Muse here has failed to even make the bench.
So while it might have been inevitable, “Three Lions ‘98” also shows why it was the last of its line (there is a 2010 version, but they barely updated the 1996 lyrics). Qualifying tournaments are not always easy for England, and they seem to end up needing a result in most final games, but by and large they get it. Mythologising one last-gasp qualification might work, but doing the same thing every two years? Nobody’s idea of fun. “Three Lions ‘98” stands alone as a trial at making a folk music concept – the perpetually refreshed song that changes to fit current events – work within pop. It didn’t, quite.
That doesn’t make this particular go at it a terrible record. In fact, you could argue that “Three Lions ‘98” rings truer than its parent – getting the results you need the hard way is part of the scrappy beauty of football, and deserves to be at the heart of at least one song. But it might be the wrong song. “Three Lions” was exactly the right style and sentiment for its moment – not just a tournament in England, but the Britpop era too, just as it was becoming overripe. The track had a desperate hopefulness that was almost religious – an England win, in London, at this time of all times, would complete a spell, dispel the anxiety behind the brittle busywork of Cool Britannia, make it into something real. It was nearly complete… but the spell had been broken, and “Three Lions ‘98” is the same tune brought down to earth, stripped of its extra resonance and buoyancy in a world where Britpop had been punctured, and records like this no longer felt like a typical sound for English music. Two years might not have given Baddiel and Skinner much to work with in English football terms, but in pop, Summer ’96 already seemed a very long time ago.