Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a song written more than 50 years ago about the daughter of a former US president, has become the unofficial anthem of the England team at Euro 2020. And it’s not the only pop song to have been adopted by England fans.
“I’ve never seen anything like it!” cried former England footballer Micah Richards on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday.
Over on ITV, another former England player-turned-pundit, Gary Neville, soaked up the joyful atmosphere in Wembley Stadium and declared: “This is one of the best experiences I think I’ve had in football.”
They weren’t speaking after England’s men qualified for their first major final since 1966.
They were talking before the semi-final, when 60,000 people were belting out Sweet Caroline as the teams prepared to take to the pitch.
A couple of hours later, the song blasted out of the speakers again, and this time the whole squad linked arms and jumped up and down as they joined in the euphoric chorus.
Somehow, a song first released by an American soft rock star in 1969 has suddenly been adopted as England’s new sporting anthem.
“There are certain songs that you go, ‘I completely get why this is being sung en masse,'” says actor Steve Furst, who performs a Neil Diamond tribute act.
“And a song like Sweet Caroline is in no way a surprise because the Diamond appeal is that he doesn’t overcomplicate anything. That very simple sing-along chorus just makes it perfect, and everyone knows it.”
Paul Carr, professor in popular music analysis at the University of South Wales, who wrote a recent article about what makes a great tournament anthem, adds: “It’s a song that’s got a lot of nostalgic resonance for many of the people who sing it.
“The big thing is simplicity of the melody, and there’s something in the lyrics.”
Simple but emotive phrases like “Good times never felt so good” and “Reaching out, touching me, touching you” are coupled with the anticipatory build-up, leading to a rousing chorus. That all makes it a feelgood communal sing-along – especially after more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing.
Diamond has said he actually wrote the love song about his wife Marcia, but her name didn’t fit the tune. However, he had remembered a magazine photo he had seen of Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy.
His song reached number four in the US chart and number eight in the UK, and became a staple of Diamond’s live shows. But the first hint of its potential as a sporting crowd-pleaser came in the late 1990s when it was played during a Boston Red Sox baseball game for an employee who had named her newborn Caroline.
The Red Sox decided it was good luck, and started playing it every week from 2003. In 2013, the singer pledged all future royalties from the tune to a charity supporting victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Other teams on both sides of the Atlantic began to adopt it, from the NFL’s Carolina Panthers to the Northern Irish football side.
Arsenal played it after their 2017 FA Cup semi-final victory, and it has also been claimed by fans of Aston Villa and the Castleford Tigers rugby league side. Meanwhile, the England cricket team celebrated their 2019 World Cup victory with a rendition, and boxer Tyson Fury has used it to rousing effect.
It’s far from the first pop song to find a new lease of life in a sport stadium. Liverpool FC’s anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone was written for the hit musical Carousel, while Scotland fans have claimed the 1977 hit Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.
After England’s Euro 2020 quarter-final win over Germany, Wembley DJ Tony Parry said he went with his instinct to play Sweet Caroline instead of Fat Les’s 1998 World Cup anthem Vindaloo.
He told TalkSport: “I was going to play Vindaloo, but went with my gut. Even the German fans were belting it out in the end. It’s a song that all fans can enjoy.
“The match director said in my in-ear, ‘The world’s been closed for 18 months… let ’em have it’.”
Sweet Caroline has even threatened to eclipse Three Lions as the England fans’ song of choice at the pandemic-delayed tournament.
“I thought Sweet Caroline went slightly better than Three Lions in the post-match sing-song,” Three Lions co-writer Frank Skinner noted after the Germany game. “I felt like we’d beat Germany and lost to Neil Diamond in extra time.”
Three Lions was originally penned as England’s official track for Euro 96 by Skinner, fellow comedian David Baddiel and The Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, who captured the football-fevered dreams of a host nation starved of success.
A firm fan favourite by the time England thrillingly progressed to the semi-finals – only to gallantly lose to Germany on penalties when current England manager Gareth Southgate, then a player, saw his spot-kick saved – the song’s refrain of “30 years of hurt” could equally eulogise glorious failure.
The track has continued to ingrain itself in culture, topping the charts on a record four separate occasions, most recently during England’s 2018 World Cup run, before sound tracking the side on this summer’s run to the final.
But with Sweet Caroline now getting such a huge raucous reaction, news of its popularity has even reached 80-year-old Diamond himself, who told The Telegraph he was “thrilled” at the scenes. He also sent a good luck message to the players before Wednesday’s semi-final.
The England squad have certainly thrived in the atmosphere it creates.
“You can’t beat a bit of Neil Diamond,” Southgate told ITV before Wednesday’s game. “It’s just a really joyous song, I think, that brings people together.”
Three other pop songs for England fans to sing
Originally a hit for the girl group back in 2001, England fans revived the pop ballad at the height of World Cup mania in the summer of 2018, borrowing lyrics from Three Lions to rework it as an ode to Southgate and the team.Fans changed the lyrics “Baby you’re the one, you still turn me on, you can make me whole again” to “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, football’s coming home again“.
In light of renewed interest at Euro 2020, the girl group – now comprising Liz McClarnon, Jenny Frost and Natasha Hamilton – announced on Tuesday that they were releasing the new version.
They gave a public performance of the track, called Southgate You’re The One (Football’s Coming Home Again), in Leicester Square ahead of the match on Wednesday, backed by the Hyde Park Brass band.
They said it had been a “whirlwind couple of days”, but they were “super excited” to contribute to the celebrations.
Gala’s 90s euro dance track was first fully embraced by Northern Ireland’s fans during Euro 2016.
They adopted a version paying tribute to the club form of striker, Will Grigg, whose goals had helped Wigan win League One that season and inspired Latics supporter Sean Kennedy to change the lyrics to “Will Grigg’s on fire… your defence is terrified”.
It was then adapted by England fans to the tune of “Vardy’s on fire” and remains popular in football celebrations across nations, breaking the language barrier with its effortlessly chantable “na, na” chorus.
Jack and Meg White’s 2003 mega-smash has its beginnings as a football anthem at the 2006 World Cup, when Italy fans celebrated their team’s success in Germany.
The squad would also eventually join in, singing the guitar refrain as part of their victory celebrations. It has since become the soundtrack to a plethora of sporting events and crowd celebrations worldwide.
Discussing the track’s ubiquity as a chant in 2014, White told US TV host Conan O’Brien: “People come up to me all the time, and they think it makes me mad for some reason.”
“I don’t know why they think it upsets me. As a songwriter, that’s the greatest thing that could ever happen. It becomes folk music.”