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England: the Singing Winger

By Hyder Jawad



COLOMBES, FRANCE - MAY 13: English forward Stanley Matthews (L) and French defender Roger Marche run after the ball during the soccer match between France and England 13 May 1955 in Colombes, in the suburbs of Paris
COLOMBES, FRANCE - MAY 13: English forward Stanley Matthews (L) and French defender Roger Marche run after the ball during the soccer match between France and England 13 May 1955 in Colombes, in the suburbs of Paris

With England playing Brazil at Wembley on Wednesday, Hyder Jawad talks to the only survivor of the first meeting between the two nations . . . Colin Grainger, who scored twice when England defeated Brazil 4-2 at Wembley in 1956

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“They tell me I’m a mug,” Colin Grainger wrote in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly in the 1950s. “Even some of the biggest names in football say I’m a fool for not giving up soccer and concentrating on singing instead. They say that, of course, because they know I’ve received as much as £100 a night for singing a few songs in variety theatres.”

A hundred quid a night? For a few songs?! “Yes, really,” Grainger says now. “Five times in one night what Sunderland were paying me for a week. When there is a choice between love of football and a need to earn money, football wins. Always has; always will.”

Grainger was not being entirely altruistic. If you have the talent and the opportunities to enjoy the best of both worlds, there is no sacrifice in putting job satisfaction ahead of personal wealth. After a football career that saw him play alongside Duncan Edwards and Stanley Matthews for England against Brazil at Wembley in 1956, he moved effortlessly into a music career that saw him top the bill with The Beatles in Manchester in 1963.

Does it get any better than that? “Well, there was the time I stayed the night in the home of Joan Collins,” he says, purring like a cat. “It was Joan’s dad, actually, Joe Collins, who was fixing up some bookings for me. He invited me to stay over instead of going to a hotel. But Joan Collins was there, and so was her sister, Jackie.”

No, Grainger is not a mug. He has the memorabilia to prove it. Boxes of the stuff, hiding in the loft of his Skelmerthorpe bungalow, ready to provide all the evidence of a life well lived. There is a gleaming mohair suit, contracts, newspaper cuttings, sheet music, football programmes, and hundreds of photographs – including one with Pele. It happened in Sheffield in 2009, when Pele went to Bramall Lane. The first man he wanted to meet was Grainger. “Pele had seen the video of my two goals when England beat Brazil 4-2 at Wembley. The match is famous in Brazil because it is rare that they concede four goals and rare that one player scores twice against them.”

The years 1956-58 were heterogeneous ones for Grainger. Having flourished in four seasons with Sheffield United, scoring a goal every four matches from left wing, he secured a move in 1957 to Sunderland. At Roker Park were such luminaries as Len Shackleton, Don Revie, and Billy Bingham. But there was also financial scandal – Sunderland were fined for making illegal payments – and then relegation. “This was a strange time for me because I was supposedly at my peak, an England international, but I sustained injuries, and then things did not work out well for Sunderland. By 1958, I was out of the reckoning for a place in the England squad for the World Cup. I was sick about that. I finished up with seven caps.”

For Grainger and for the world, the times they were a-changin’. This was when the balance of power in pop music began its shift from America to Britain, and when the balance of power in football began its shift from Europe to South America. There was cataclysm, too: Soviet forces invaded Budapest in 1956 to hasten the demise of that great Hungary football team, and the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 decimated the Manchester United squad, and, by extension, the England World Cup squad.

“When you think of the talent in that England team, with Duncan Edwards, Billy Wright and Stanley Matthews, you delight in what might have been,” Grainger tells me. “We will never know how good the team could have been because Munich cheated us. But in 1956, we scored four against Brazil at Wembley and we even missed two penalties. That was how superior we were that day. Two years later, Brazil won the World Cup.

“I think Munich affected us all. Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne were my friends, particularly Duncan. Look at any photograph of me on England duty in the 1950s, and you will see Duncan Edwards somewhere in the same shot. When I got the phone call to say there had been a crash at Munich, I went cold. Roger Byrne’s wife and my wife were friends, which added to my grief. When Duncan died, all I could think about was this great young kid who did nothing but joke about. Whereas we would address the England coach Walter Winterbottom as ‘Mr Winterbottom’, Duncan would always call him ‘Walter’. You were not supposed to be so informal in the 1950s but life was one big joke for Duncan. I miss him dearly.”

By the time Brazil won the World Cup in Sweden, with four survivors of that Wembley defeat, Grainger was going back and forth on the train from Sunderland to London for voice coaching, recording sessions, and contractual discussions. “All that way to London, then across the city on the tube, and in some cases all for just 45 minutes’ voice coaching,” Grainger says, laughing. “It was often at my own expense, too, so I ended up out of pocket. The voice coaching went on for a month, but I enjoyed it.”

Grainger was first exemplar of the New Footballer. He had it all: the blond hair, the lightning-quick feet, the eloquent voice, and the dynamism. Here was a man of the 1960s before the decade began. The first hints came when the official programme for the England-Scotland match at Wembley on April 6, 1957 referred to Grainger, the outside left, as having “great potentialities as a modern popular singer”.

The singing career started almost by accident. “We had been on an England tour of Northern Europe and we ended up in Helsinki on a night out,” Grainger says. “I think we were bored, so Nat Lofthouse went up to the pianist and told him that one of the England players could sing like Al Jolson. Nat knew that I had sung in social clubs in Havercroft when I was young but I think I took everyone by surprise when I picked up the microphone and started to perform. My life was different after that night.”

By 1963, Grainger had turned those “potentialities” into something more tangible when, on a warm Manchester night in June, he shared the bill with The Beatles. “It was at the Southern Sporting Club and I shared a dressing room with the four of them,” Grainger says. “The Beatles were on the verge of becoming superstars but they had to take the booking because they had signed the contract a year before. When they signed, the £50 fee was a lot of money. When they came to doing the performances, the money was nothing to them. I remember John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison as serious young men and professional, but I remember Ringo Starr messing about all the time, playing with Dinky cars on the floor. Their album, Please, Please Me, had just reached No.1, so they were on a high. You knew then they were special, so it was a privilege to be on the same bill.”

Juggling two careers might have caused problems but Grainger somehow struck the right balance. What started as summer work turned into something that threatened to take over from his real job: football. “I had this second career, which, by the time I joined Leeds United in 1960, had already been going for three years. But my managers had been supportive. At Sheffield United, Joe Mercer, who became manager after Reg Freeman died, encouraged me to such an extent that we ended up socialising together quite a lot. Joe was such an influence on my life and career.”

Grainger was aged 27 when he played for Leeds in 1960-61 but already thinking about his future. Injuries to an ankle and knee had inhibited the pace on which he relied so much. “Rehabilitation was nothing more than a heat lamp and a massage, so it was hard to come back from injury,” he says. During his time with Port Vale (1961-64) and Doncaster United (1964-66), he was, he says, “too old for football”.

Fortunately, he was just the right age for singing (“crooning”, as he likes to call it), and he would tour the empire theatres throughout the country with plausible imitations of Tom Jones and Al Jolson, with the occasional bit of Elvis Presley for good measure. Professional singing made professional football seem so easy. If you can win over the audience at working-men’s clubs in England’s toughest areas, playing at Highbury, Anfield or Old Trafford can be a doddle. “I was far more nervous before a gig than for a match,” he says. “In football, you’re one man of 11, but in singing, you’re one man of one.”

For Grainger, there was always something about an audience. He recalls the time he went to the 1951 FA Cup semi-final replay between Blackpool and Birmingham City at Goodison Park. “There must have been seventy-odd thousand there. You could not move. I was aged 17 and all I could do was look at Stanley Matthews playing for Blackpool. I could see the affect he had on the spectators and I wanted to emulate him. There is something special about entertaining people. Five years later, I played alongside Stan for England. He was such a celebrity on the pitch that it took me by surprise to discover that he was serious off it. It was the same with Len Shackleton: a clown prince on the pitch but quiet off it.”

Grainger continues to sing – he has produced four CDs of covers in recent years – and prides himself on retaining his vocal range. He still works in football, too, as a scout for Sheffield United. All this for a man of 78. It helps that he has been married to Doreen for 56 years. His two children, Colin and Kim, live in the same Yorkshire village and he has five grandchildren and two great grandchildren to keep his hands full. “I might put on a CD to listen to myself sing,” he says. “I can learn about my voice by doing that. I might also put on a DVD of that match against Brazil. I love the nostalgia, see. Did I really jump that high to head the fourth goal past Gilmar?”

Conversations with Grainger never really end. They merely reach a pause – sometimes lasting a few seconds when he draws breath, sometimes a few days – before he is ready to disseminate the next anecdote from his preposterously brilliant repertoire. “How about this story,” he will say, and will then launch fervently into a tale about the time in the late-1950s he lost his week’s wages – £20 – against Billy Bingham and Don Revie in the famous Roker Poker card school.

When Revie was dying of motor neurone disease in 1989, Grainger wrote to him with offers of good wishes and affection. Revie’s response: Grainger, you were much better at football than you were at poker. “How typical of Don Revie to be funny and complimentary at the same time,” Grainger says. “He was a nice guy, so astute, and a big part of my career. I stayed in the same hotel as him, the Swallow, when we were both at Sunderland, so we became close. Don even initiated my move to Leeds United in 1960. He had a great set of young players at Leeds in 1960-61 that it was no surprise when they went on to dominate.”

He draws breath. “How about this story . . .”

No doubt about it, Colin Grainger is most definitely not a mug.

Hyder Jawad and Colin Grainger are working on the former England player's autobiography