The Old Crown pub in Penistone, South Yorkshire – Wednesday 2pm – eight hours before kick-off.
An old-timer walks in. He’s 79 and here to meet a group of friends already tucking into pints at a corner table.
“Now then,” he calls over to them. “Is it coming home or what?”
This, you will not need telling, is a phrase that has been everywhere the past few weeks: on pub jukeboxes, blaring from car windows, in that meme with Ross from Friends and his monkey.
Tesco has featured it in an advert; Sir Keir Starmer riffed on it following a Labour by-election win; go on, admit it, even you’ve said – or sung – it with tongue either in cheek or not.
So widely Googled has “coming home” been since the start of Euro 2020, indeed, that a thousand online explainers have been bashed out – aye, perhaps like this one – by publications trying to tap into its sudden SEO potential.
They detail, mainly, what those of us of a certain vintage assumed everyone knew anyway: that “Three Lions” – the song from which it comes – was a football anthem written by Ian Broudie, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel for Euro 96; that it’s a lament to the national team’s unfulfilled dreams rather than an expression of arrogance; and that “coming home” was originally a reference to that year’s tournament being held in England (where the modern game was codified) but that, somehow, somewhere along the line, it took on a second meaning about winning a major trophy.
Yet what is less analysed is perhaps a more interesting question: just how exactly did a throwaway refrain from a mid-Nineties footy song so embed itself in the national psyche that everyone – almost literally everyone – understands that “football coming home” is shorthand for England success?
That is to say: how did it happen that a near-octogenarian could walk into a Yorkshire boozer, ask if it was coming home, and everyone know – Lightning Seeds fan or otherwise – that he was asking about how the national team might fair in that evening’s semi-final against Denmark? How come he didn’t ask, for example, if we might be getting a vindaloo? Or if the world would soon be in motion?
“‘Coming home’ has become an idiom,” says Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University. “It’s an expression where you couldn’t deduce the meaning from the individual words but there is a collective understanding of what is being expressed… It is a colourful way to express something reasonably commonplace.”
We use, of course, hundreds of such sayings in everyday speech.
On Wednesday, many people will have painted the town red – a phrase that refers to a legendary 19th-century night of revelry in which the Marquis of Waterford is said to have drunkenly thrown paint over several houses in his home town. Perhaps we were over the moon at the result – an expression widely used and understood across the English-speaking world despite having no clearly defined origin.
Yet what is perhaps unusual is to witness such an idiom establishing itself in the national vernacular in a kind of real time. “Coming home” is 25 years old and, therefore, beyond being a temporary colloquialism used by one generation and forgotten by the next. It appears to be here to stay, and is used across all social and generational strata.
Crucially, while it may refer to sport, its meaning is understood far beyond those who are particularly interested in the beautiful game.
Which may, it seems, be all down to the word “home”.
“For most people, home – and coming home – connotes all kinds of positive things,” says Stokoe. “It is such a powerful word because it means so much to people in so many different ways. It is already in so many idioms: ‘home is where the heart is’ or ‘wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home’. It taps into something we all have an understanding of already. If you were going to attempt to create an idiom from scratch, ‘home’ would be a good word to build it around.”
Its other great quality, she adds, is its sheer simplicity: three words, four syllables, a meaning that is clear yet with imagery – our home – that is unique to us all.
So could it, like painting the town red, still be with us in two century’s time? Might we still be asking if it’s coming home at the 2220 European Championships?
“Why not?” says Stokoe, herself a confessed non-football fan. “Language and words are always on the move. They solidify for a bit and becomes familiar and then some disappear, others stick around for longer. It is a living thing.”