2018 – despite being just three years in the past – already feels like a lifetime ago.

Coronavirus, Brexit and no end of political scandals will have many of us longing for a simpler and more enjoyable time when we could all meet up with mates in crowded pubs and watch football matches.

From an English perspective, that summer was probably one of the best in recent memory as the England men’s football team exceeded expectations at the Fifa World Cup in Russia.

The Three Lions, managed by Gareth Southgate, managed to instil a new sense of optimism and pride amongst England that had not been seen for a generation. This relatively young team’s sense of camaraderie and goodwill, especially amongst the backdrop of Brexit, united a nation and made fans proud to support their nation, a feeling that was alien to many.

Even if you weren’t remotely interested in football, it was impossible to not get wrapped up in the euphoria of it all – and this was largely thanks to one very popular song 22 years previous.

‘Three Lions’ has been a staple of the England team since Euro 96 when there was a sense of jubilation surrounding a new generation of England players. The previous crop featuring the likes of Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton and Chris Waddle had reached its apex at World Cup 1990 where they reached the semi-finals but lost to Germany. Since then, there had been a quick demise of English football which culminated in their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

Now, with the likes of Alan Shearer, David Seaman, Teddy Sheringham, Paul Ince and Tony Adams in the squad, as well as experienced faces like Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce, there was a sense that England could go all the way especially as the tournament was being held on home soil.

The song by The Lightning Seeds and comedy duo David Baddiel and Frank Skinner became a huge hit and topped the singles charts. However, just like in 1990, England again lost to Germany in the semi-final and the German team mockingly adopted the song on their way to lifting the trophy.

After that, the song didn’t quite have the reverence. Although it was rereleased and remixed several times – most notably in 1998 and 2010 – it failed to capture the sense of hope and excitement that the original version created. This could mostly be attributed to the England team’s poor performances at major competitions since 1996 mostly consisted of limping to a quarter-final loss to either Brazil, Italy or Portugal (twice). Was this really the best England fans could hope for?

However, something about the song and England had changed by the 2018 World Cup. England was not expected to do much that summer in Russia but a series of good results in the group stages and win against Colombia (via a penalty shootout, of all things) changed the mood of the nation. Suddenly watching England was fun again and ‘Three Lions’ was everywhere.

A big part of the song's revival was the hundreds of memes that it inspired on social media, many of which were quite frankly hilarious. By simply inserting the catchy lyrics of ‘It’s coming home’ into famous scenes from pop culture, England fans managed to create a frenzy that swept the entire nation.

Even Amazon’s Alexa got in on the fun.

Those looking to mock fans for joining in would claim there wasn’t a chance that England was ever going to win, which proved true when they lost 2-1 to Croatia in the semi-finals. To reduce people’s happiness at their team winning a few football games to something so cynical is honestly just a bit mean and petty.

Although England’s remarkable progression through the tournament took everyone’s breath away, the origins of the meme were a lot more humble as a lot of fans were genuinely surprised by how well the team was playing against the odds and adopted the chant as nothing more than a bit of fun.

It might have become annoying to those who weren’t interested but – and this isn’t hyperbole – large amounts of England fans have never experienced anything like that before. For once, there was no negativity, no prejudice, no outdated references to the war – just everyone enjoying football, singing and throwing lots of beer into the air.

A better way of remembering that tournament might be through the BBC’s genuinely moving montage soundtracked by The National’s song ‘England’ which captures the unexpected feeling that the tournament managed to instil in even the most negative of England fans.

That being said, the lyrics to the song are confusing. Although fans might interpret it as the football team winning the trophy and literally bringing it home, the original lyrics are more acknowledgement of the football returning to its supposed historical home of England for Euro 96. Nowadays a lot of the squad, let alone fans, weren’t even born in 1996 so the lyrics took on a simpler, if not a more relatable, meaning.

Three years have passed since then and the meme and the song still remains as popular as ever and, like in 2018, the clamour for the song has increased throughout the tournament. Although the results from the group stages weren’t exactly anything to be thrilled about, England won two and drew another, scoring just two goals, the results in the knockout stages have rejuvenated the nation and ‘It’s coming home’ all over again. An impressive 2-0 win over old foes Germany in the last 16 and a 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine in the quarter-finals and England fans are dreaming again.

As a result ‘Three Lions’ is currently at number 22 in the official UK singles charts and could go higher should England beat Denmark in Wednesday semi-final and reach their first major final since 1966. However, Denmark’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who has played the majority of his club career in England remains unconvinced by the ‘it’s coming home’ chants. During a press conference on Tuesday, he asked “has it ever come home?”

You have to agree that he does have a point.

The song itself is 25 years old this year and there is a good chance that we’ll still be talking about it in another 25 years’ time. For a few weeks in 2018, the England football team, that song and the memes it created genuinely lifted the nation’s mood and provided a positive and welcome distraction from the divisive political rhetoric seeping out of Westminster and the looming spectre of Brexit and briefly united everyone again.

It’s hard to replicate that mood especially with Covid restrictions remaining in place but after the year that we’ve all just dealt with, it would be nice for that sense of euphoria to repeat itself (as you as you aren’t sick of the song and support another nation, that is)... just perhaps with a slightly happier ending this time.

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