‘I’m faceless FA bureaucrat who tried to ban Three Lions Football’s Coming Home’

The anthem would become the best-selling football song ever, and it will once again ring round Wembley on Sunday. Will football finally be coming home this time?

Millions of England fans will be praying for just that, their hopes fuelled by the bitter-sweet lyrics belted out by so many over the years.

Yet, Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home), written by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie, was on the verge of being banned by a faceless FA bureaucrat before its release 25 years ago.

I was that faceless FA bureaucrat.

Euro 96, which was staged in England, was a huge success – an uplifting so-near-but-so-far performance by the England team coupled with a well-organised and trouble-free tournament.

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Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Ian Broudie in the recording studio

But the build-up was fraught with problems and anxiety behind the scenes.

The overwhelming fear of the Football Association was that hooliganism – so much more prevalent then than now – would mar the tournament and ruin the reputation of English football.

As the FA’s head of media relations, my brief included ensuring nothing was said or done that could be seen as encouraging or condoning hooliganism.

Common sense, you might think, but with belligerence so ingrained in much of football-speak, it was easy to trip up.

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And so it came to pass. About two months before Euro 96 started, Darren Venn, a colleague from the FA’s commercial department, dropped a sheet of A4 on to my desk… “Can you give this the once-over, please, Steve?”

It was the original lyrics to Three Lions. After the success of New Order’s World in Motion for the 1990 World Cup, the FA’s endorsement for the official England song had become sought after.

The Lightning Seeds’ record label had talked with the FA, and seeing as Baddiel and Skinner’s TV show Fantasy Football League was so popular, it seemed like a good fit – and a chance for the FA to modernise its image. Foreseeing no issues, I read the lyrics. “Jules Rimet still gleaming… 30 years of hurt… never stopped me dreaming.” Very nice.

“Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing…” This is good, I thought.

England defender Terry Butcher is left bloodied and scarred after the 1990 World Cup Qualifying match against Sweden
England defender Terry Butcher is left bloodied and scarred after the 1990 World Cup Qualifying match against Sweden

“…Butcher at war…” Hang on. Terry Butcher was famed as England’s blood-spattered centre back from the 1990 World Cup campaign.

But this is football, not war. Any references to fighting were unacceptable. I picked up the red pen and struck it out. To me, it was an easy decision.

How can we preach peace to fans when the team’s official single was extolling war?

The message was sent back that the lyrics were unacceptable. Uproar ensued. The record company, I was told, was furious. Frank Skinner’s manager, Jon Thoday, of Avalon management, demanded a meeting.

Jon Thoday was Frank Skinner's manager
Jon Thoday was Frank Skinner’s manager

A few days later, the fearsome Thoday arrived at my office at the FA’s then-headquarters in Lancaster Gate. He was clearly unhappy. In fact, make that incandescent.

I received both barrels: I had no right to change his clients’ lyrics. I was impugning their artistic integrity. How dare I even consider it – the lyrics stay or the deal is off.

I was reeling. It was a showbiz equivalent of being on the receiving end of an Alex Ferguson “hairdryer” blast. I recovered from the shock to mount a Tony Adams-style defence.

This attacker wasn’t going to get past. With anti-hooliganism campaigns under way, it would be hypocritical for the official England record to reference war or fighting. The FA would get slaughtered for such an own goal.

England star Alan Shearer at Euro 96
England star Alan Shearer at Euro 96

The ill-tempered meeting ended with neither of us shifting ground. Further angry phone calls followed and an impasse ensued.

I was left with the firm impression I was a hate figure. I felt I held all the cards, though.

The FA had power of veto, and its endorsement – together with access to England players for the video – was a valuable asset. If the record was binned, so what?

There were plenty of others in the queue. It didn’t occur to me that this particular song was history in the making. Doh.

England fans throw missiles on pitch as they riot during a friendly against Ireland in Dublin - the game was abandoned after 27 minutes
England fans throw missiles on pitch as they riot during a friendly against Ireland in Dublin – the game was abandoned after 27 minutes

After a week or so, it seemed the deal was off. There would be no Three Lions, thanks to the boring old FA. But as quickly as the row escalated, the objections suddenly slipped away as Euro 96 got ever closer.

“Butcher going to war” became “That tackle by Moore”. The war reference vanished, and we had peace in our time.

No thanks to me, the record by Baddiel & Skinner & the Lightning Seeds was a huge commercial success. It was even a hit in Germany.

A month after Euro 96, a package arrived for me at Lancaster Gate.

To my astonishment, it contained a platinum disc in my name for Three Lions achieving sales of more than 600,000 (it went on to sell more than 1.6 million). It seemed I had been forgiven.

Considering I can’t sing or play any instruments, I must rank as the least-deserving recipient of a platinum disc.

Especially when I tried to ensure that Football’s Coming Home never left the house in the first place.

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