England's singing winger: Colin Grainger shared stage with the Beatles

England’s singing winger: Colin Grainger scored two on his debut, shared a stage with the Beatles and watched Stanley Matthews swig Babycham before matches

  • Ex-international Colin Grainger was once the fastest winger in the First Division 
  • He is also an England goalscorer against Brazil and West Germany in the 1950s 
  • Grainger lived a double life as a club crooner and spent summers touring 
  • The now 86-year-old is one of the 10 oldest surviving England players

‘I didn’t know you were a footballer.’ The words come from the delivery man as he drops off a package and catches sight of the autobiography in Colin Grainger’s hand. ‘Oh aye’ comes the matter-of-fact reply, delivered in a broad Yorkshire brogue.

A footballer, and the rest. The 86-year-old Grainger may step gingerly across the bungalow carpet in his moccasin slippers, owing to arthritis in his knees, but he was once the fastest winger in the old First Division, an England goalscorer against Brazil and West Germany in the mid-1950s who lived a double life as a club crooner.

Forget Chris Waddle and his Diamond Lights duet with Glenn Hoddle. Grainger was England’s original singing winger.

Colin Grainger scored for England against Brazil and is the country’s original singing winger

‘I know I’m blowing my own trumpet but when you say about Hoddle and Waddle making a record, they can’t bloody sing, let’s face it,’ he says, delivering another blast of pure Yorkshire.

Few who have worn the shirt in England’s 1,000 international matches have such a colourful story. As a player at Sheffield United and Sunderland, and later Leeds United and Port Vale, Grainger would spend his summers touring – ‘a time for making money’ – and even earned a HMV recording contract after Joe Collins, father of Joan and Jackie, became his agent. Yet his biggest musical claim to fame is the fact he twice shared a bill with the Beatles, at shows in Stockport and Manchester in 1963.

‘I was in a dressing room with all four of them,’ he recalls. ‘I liked John Lennon. He seemed down to earth somehow. And Ringo, well, he were a bit of an idiot – he had a Dinky toy and he were saying, “I’ve got a car, I’ve got a car”. I thought: “You dozy bugger”.’

It was after an England match in Finland in 1956 that Grainger, who had spent his teenage years perfecting his Al Jolson routine, first performed live to an audience beyond the working men’s club in his home village of Havercroft, West Yorkshire.

‘Nat Lofthouse was a joker, and he said to me, “Colin, come on, let’s have a song off you” so I got up and that was it.’

Grainger would spend his summers touring and had even earned a HMV recording contract

Within three months he was opening at the Sheffield Empire for US band The Hilltoppers, who offered him £5,000-a-year to tour with them. This in the era of football’s £20-per-week maximum wage. Was he tempted? ‘We were happy at home,’ he says – and with good reason, given that he had just scored twice on his England debut against Brazil in a 4-2 victory.

‘After the War the attendances were big and the atmosphere coming on to the pitch, bloody hell, it was a roar. My first kick I scored. I couldn’t believe it. At Wembley.’

At the time, Grainger was living at home with his parents. The £50 England appearance fee, when £10 was the average industrial wage, ‘helped’ though he did not buy his first car until two years later.

‘A Riley Pathfinder,’ he smiles. ‘I always said I’d get a car when I could afford it. The car cost £400 but I also put £400 in the bank in case anything went wrong. It were a lovely car, though. Proper leather seating.’

Grainger is one of the 10 oldest surviving England players. With the FA celebrating the national team’s milestone 1,000th fixture against Montenegro on Thursday night, Grainger, who made his debut in game 303, offers a fascinating insight into life as an England footballer six decades ago. Even with his international caps, he travelled into Sheffield by bus and tram each day. ‘It used to take me roughly two hours to get to Sheffield United,’ he recalls.

‘It was the same on a matchday. You’d be on the bus with fans, talking football, “what’s team for today?” You were like a family.’

He describes the insecurity of ‘May to May’ contracts – ‘You asked in February: ‘Can I get some new boots?’ and if they answered “aye” you knew you’d got a contract’ – yet argues that the on-field rewards were more acutely felt. ‘All I could think of were the Towers. Now everybody plays at Wembley. I don’t agree with a man coming on the field with 10 minutes to go and getting a cap. In our day there were 11 of you and that were it. You were proud to think, “I’m best in the country at No 11”.’

International football was a step into the unknown. Manager Walter Winterbottom was ‘just a figurehead’ and as for the Brazilians he faced on his debut, ‘we didn’t know them from Adam. All he [Winterbottom] said to us was: ‘This team you’re playing today, they’re very good with the ball. So you’ve got to try and keep it as long as you can.’

Grainger netted against Brazil and West Germany and connected well with Duncan Edwards

For a winger then, he explains, the duel with the full back was everything. ‘Today they get the ball and they’re looking to pass. When I were playing as left winger, I’d run your legs off.’ The job spec was simple: ‘Get to the dead-ball line and get the crosses in.’ In the dressing room he remembers Stanley Matthews, then 41, taking a swig from a Babycham bottle.

‘He said to me: “Are you nervous, Colin?” I said: “I am”. He said: “You’ll be alright, don’t worry.” And he got this bottle out of his bag and started drinking it and said: “I’m as bad as you”.’

Otherwise, Matthews was a loner. ‘He ate his food on his own. He had it in his bedroom.’

For Grainger, the England colleague he connected with right away was Duncan Edwards. He tells a tale in his autobiography, The Singing Winger, about the Manchester United midfielder buying a ‘saucy pair of knickers’ for his girlfriend during a shopping trip before one international.

Laughing, he elaborates: ‘He were courting. I were married, I were all right! Duncan had a man’s physique but he acted like a kid, a 14, 15-year-old. He used to call the manager “Walter”. He’d say: “Right, Walter, what are we doing?” He got away with it. We had a curfew at nine o’clock and we’d sit down and have a cup of tea but Duncan, no – a jug of milk. He were strong as an ox and when he used to shoot, it’d be like a pea,’ he adds, with a whooshing sound. ‘We were so close. He weren’t a big head.’

Both scored in the 3-1 victory in Berlin in May 1956 as England paid their first visit to West Germany since the end of the Second World War. Grainger saw a glimpse of the post-war rebuilding. ‘You talk about being bombed, it were absolutely flat. And yet they worked through the night.’

The support from British servicemen among the 95,000 Olympic Stadium crowd is another memory. ‘There were no songs as such, they were just cheering. I thought there’d be trouble but there were none at all.’

It was as a Sunderland player in 1957 that he had made his final England appearance

England’s victory over the world champions leaves him to wonder what might have been at the 1958 World Cup for a team that lost Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor to the Munich air disaster. ‘Johnny Haynes was 21. Duncan were 19. I was 22, Ronnie Clayton 21, Tommy Taylor 24. And we beat Germany 3-1. We talk about kids now. We did it.’

After Munich, Grainger declined a move to Old Trafford. ‘I couldn’t face it to think they’d gone and I’m there to replace them.’

By then he was at Sunderland, having arrived just before the ‘Bank of England club’ suffered an illegal payments scandal.

‘They were all doing it but they went too far at Sunderland – they bought shops for players. Say you won, they put 10 pound in your shoe as an extra bonus.’

It was as a Sunderland player in 1957 that he made his final England appearance, his pace diminished by ankle ligament damage suffered against Wales. His description of the journey back to Yorkshire underlines how times have changed.

‘I got on the train at Kings Cross to go to Wakefield and every seat were full and I had to stand up with my ankle throbbing,’ he says. ‘I stood all the bloody way. I had my England blazer on too. They’d strapped it up for me but no hospital treatment or nowt like that. They don’t know they’re born now.’

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