The Singing Winger
The Sheffield United forward Colin Grainger on scoring two on his international debut against Brazil
I joined up with the England squad at Lancaster Gate on Monday 4 May 1956, five days before the match, and I felt as small and as insignificant as I had when I turned up for my first day as a professional with Sheffield United. I was only just over the injury that had ruled me out of the match against Wolverhampton Wanderers the Saturday before, but the burden of my new surroundings rendered my legs jelly-like.
When I presented myself to the receptionist at the FA headquarters, she said: “Ah, yes, Mr Grainger – you’ll be sharing a room with Mr Matthews.”
“Mr Matthews?” I replied, my voice rising an octave.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“But I can’t do that.”
“Sorry, Mr Grainger, it has already been decided. What are you worried about?”
“Stanley Matthews is a star, one of the greatest players in the world. I shouldn’t be sharing with Stanley Mathews.”
I wish I had taken the trouble to check the facts. The ‘Mr Matthews’ with whom I would share a room was Reg Matthews, the goalkeeper for Coventry City in the Third Division, which came as a massive relief. The other Matthews – the legendary Stanley, whom I idolised – never shared a room with any player. He was far too famous and far too talented to be one of the lads.
The players to whom I introduced myself first were from Manchester United: Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and Duncan Edwards, who were all seated together, each wearing a smile that could only have come from the confidence born of their new status as champions of England. I had no such confidence. To me, the environment was alien.
“Hello, I’m Colin Grainger of Sheffield United.”
I had met them all before, of course, during the trip to Belfast a week earlier, but I did not want to assume they remembered me. I was famous locally, in Sheffield and in Barnsley, but still not a national figure.
“Come and join us, Colin,” Edwards said in a thick Black Country accent that must have been how my grandparents spoke.
The England manager was Walter Winterbottom, whose reputation was that of a grammar-school headmaster, but he was nothing of the kind. He was quiet, extremely polite, never given to shouting at people, and always eager to perpetuate the sense of team spirit. We trained at Highbury, the home of Arsenal, but all we did was run around the pitch. When we had a meal, I noticed that Stanley Matthews was nowhere to be seen. “He eats on his own,” somebody told me.
Matthews had only just returned to the team after a spell out. John Atyeo, the prolific Bristol City striker, also returned. I was surprised to discover that Nat Lofthouse and Bill Perry, two fine players, had been dropped, while Tom Finney had been ruled out through injury.
The day after, when we had some free time, Duncan Edwards asked me if I fancied walking into the West End with him. We cut through Hyde Park and shared stories about our backgrounds. He was interested to learn that the Graingers and the Hollidays hailed from Dudley, Staffordshire, the town where he was born in 1936.1 We spoke about Joe Mercer, who was not only my manager at Sheffield United but also the man who, as the coach of the England schoolboys’ team, recommended Edwards to Manchester United in 1952. Edwards might otherwise have signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers or Aston Villa.
As we strolled around London, Edwards and I enjoyed our anonymity, taking in the sights like wide-eyed tourists, and even going shopping. It was Edwards’s idea to go to a lingerie shop. A gift for the lady, he said, picking up a saucy pair of knickers with that childlike charm of his. The lady in question was Molly Leech, to whom he was engaged. I was a bit more self-conscious when I selected something appropriate (ie, less risqué) to take back to Doreen in Havercroft. It required no small amount of dexterity to get these gifts into our rooms back at the hotel in Lancaster Gate without any of the other players noticing.
Edwards was something of a paradox. He was shy in social situations, yet he had the most endearing personality. For example, whereas most of us conformed to protocol and addressed Walter Winterbottom as “Mr Winterbottom”, Edwards always called him “Walter” – in that thick Black Country accent that we all liked to imitate. Nobody else would have got away with such informality where Winterbottom was concerned but, then, nobody else had Edwards’s attractive disposition off the pitch or magical exuberance on it. Although I was aged only 22 at that time, Edwards made me feel like I was of an older generation.
As my relationship with Edwards seemed to develop quickly into a friendship, I felt a part of the England structure. I woke up on the morning of the match feeling good. I read the newspapers.
“Stan’s back: England need him again,” went one headline.
“Colin Grainger beats brother Jack to first family cap,” went another.
Apparently I was “the fastest footballer in England”; quicker aged 22 than I was three years earlier when I could sprint 100 yards in 10.4 seconds. Journalists noted that I was now earning “top money” at Sheffield United – 20 quid – and that my speed and direct style could find gaps in the “square Brazilian defence”. Everything I read seemed designed to make me feel great. But when the time came to get on the bus to Wembley, the nerves kicked in, and everything around me – the players on the bus, the spectators outside walking to the stadium, the discordant sounds – turned into an overwhelming assault on the senses. Trembling and sweating, all I could think of was the members of my family who had come down for the match to form part of a 100,000 capacity crowd. What were they thinking? Would they get their tickets okay? Would I let them down? Was I really of the required standard for a career at international level?
In the dressing room, I found myself changing next to Stanley Matthews, which, I think, Walter Winterbottom arranged deliberately, possibly in an attempt to calm my nerves.
“Do you still get nervous before these big matches, Stanley?” I asked him, partly out of curiosity, partly out of the need to fill an uncomfortable silence.
“Nervous? I am as nervous as you, Colin.”
And then he swigged something from one of those new Babycham bottles. I did not ask him what it was but he was shaking so much that some of the liquid spilt all over the floor. He was nearly 20 years older than I and had been a professional since before I was born. He was an idol of mine. He was above sharing a room and the dinner table with his colleagues. And yet, on that blissful afternoon, as Matthews’s hands juddered, I realised that there was something wonderfully egalitarian about the Wembley dressing room.
Walter Winterbottom had given us some information about the Brazilians. They were great on the ball and technically superb, but not good at closing you down when you had the ball. Our plan was simple: do not let them have the ball and they will fade away. At that time, Brazil had never won a World Cup, and while there was an aura about them, it was not an aura of invincibility. I formed the impression early on that they had more to fear about England than we had to fear about them. One of the first things I noticed was that the Brazilians wore boots like slippers, made of fine leather. Our boots had improved from 10 years earlier but were still heavy and cumbersome.
Tommy Taylor scored to give England the lead inside three minutes, which was long enough for us to realise that the Brazilians were limited when it came to the arts of defending. This was easier than I expected, and confidence engulfed my being, replacing the apprehension that had made the pre-match countdown so debilitating. When we had arrived at Wembley two hours earlier, it felt as though my veins contained cement, but now they contained rocket fuel.
In the fifth minute, Stanley Matthews received the ball near the corner flag and then, as a loud cheer circulated the stadium, he flicked it between Canhoteiro's legs to feed the England right-back, Jeff Hall. Hall’s pass forward found Taylor, who beat Pavão. The ball went across the goal from Johnny Haynes, and there I was, drifting in at the far post, in perfect position to side-foot the ball home from four yards out.
As England debuts went, this was perfect: five minutes of action, my first touch, and already I had engraved my name on the list of England goalscorers.
Brazil responded by scoring twice early in the second half, through Paulinho and Didi, and then John Atyeo missed a penalty for England just after the hour mark. Tommy Taylor restored our lead in the 65th minute, before Roger Byrne missed a penalty two minutes later. The match became exciting, with Brazil pushing forward in search of an equaliser but leaving gaps in midfield and at the back. Billy Wright in defence and Duncan Edwards in midfield were superb, as was Stanley Matthews on the right wing. I was always impressed with Wright’s timing in the air, which enabled him to out-jump taller men. In the 83rd minute, I picked the ball up on the halfway line, laid it off to Johnny Haynes and kept running. Haynes passed wide to Stanley Matthews, who made light work of Nilton Santos’s attempted tackle, and I continued my run towards the left of the penalty area. Matthews’s cross to the far post was accurate and clever, forcing Gilmar, the Brazil goalkeeper, out of position. I darted towards the six-yard box, jumped as high as I could, and met the ball a split-second before Gilmar got there, and the roar of the crowd confirmed that my header was nestling in the back of the net for a 4-2 lead.
Not in my wildest dreams did I envisage such a debut, but it was a fine victory for a fine team on a day that those present were unlikely to forget for a long time. After the tribulations of the matches against Hungary in 1953 and 1954, and the anti-climax of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, the England team had reclaimed its lost horizon.
I discovered later the reason why Stanley Matthews was so keyed-up: apparently Brazilian journalists were writing that he would be no match for Nilton Santos. As events unfolded, the opposite proved to be the case. Matthews was world-class, even at the age of 41. Whatever was in that Babycham bottle was doing him good.
Afterwards, I was at the back of the bus with Roger Byrne and as the Twin Towers of Wembley faded into the distance, he turned to me and said: “Colin, look at that. Just look at that. Once you’ve played at Wembley, you’ve done it.”
One match, two goals, and suddenly – having begun the week by feeling inconsequential – I felt now part of the England set-up. The 50 quid match fee added to the sense of unreality. I would have paid 50 quid to play for England.
When we flew to Copenhagen on 14 May on our way to Stockholm for a match against Sweden, I noticed how eager Duncan Edwards was to sit next to me on the flight. I still have the photograph of us both smiling, two young men on a new adventure, each with the look of anticipation engraved over his youthful features.
When we arrived in Sweden, Reg Matthews and I shared a room again. On our first free day, he asked me if I fancied going to visit the Sweden manager, George Raynor, a well-respected Yorkshireman, in the centre of Stockholm. Raynor had played for Rotherham United under Reg Freeman in the mid-1930s and had made a name for himself coaching teams in Italy, Sweden, Iraq – and Aldershot. He led the Sweden team to gold at the London Olympic Games of 19482 and to third place at the 1950 World Cup, so he already boasted a reputation for being a visionary and an inspirer of dreams. Matthews played under Raynor at Coventry earlier in 1956, so it seemed natural that they should want to meet up under these markedly different circumstances.
Considering Raynor was the Sweden manager, he did not live in the lap of luxury. His apartment was neat and well appointed, but scarcely what one might expect from such a significant football figure. The Swedes were largely amateur in those days and Raynor had to supplement his income by coaching in schools.
The three of us consumed copious amounts of tea and a few biscuits, while Matthews and Raynor shared stories of their time together at Coventry. Occasionally, I would chip in with some observations of my own. It was all pleasant, but I formed the opinion, based on some of the things Raynor said and the way he said them, that he regretted deeply his failure to make the grade as a manager in the top flight of English football. Perhaps his problem was that he was a man ahead of his times, a radical, when such revolutionary thinking was, arguably, antithetical to the conservatism of the English game.
When Matthews and I returned to the England hotel in Stockholm, we did not say a word to Walter Winterbottom that we had been socialising with the Sweden manager. I suspect Winterbottom would have been less than impressed and rather suspicious. Instead, we went to our room and wrote to our families back in England. Matthews had not done so well in school and struggled with his writing, so much so that he dictated his letters and I wrote them down for him. I grew to like him and we felt an affinity for each other, partly because we shared a room, but also because we began our England careers at the same time.
The match itself at the Råsunda Stadium, Stockholm, lacked the excitement of our encounter against Brazil, but in many respects provided more of an education. The Swedes were fit and efficient, with a more patient style of play. The fierce wind seemed to affect them less than it did the England players. “Sometimes a goalless draw has character,” The Times reported. “Quite often it produces excitement in the furnace of a fierce struggle. Yet somehow here was a match lacking these qualities. It was without poise and for long stretches even a melancholy silence fell on the packed Råsunda Stadium between the bursts of the national cry heja that swirled around the ground in an effort to breathe some fire into the battle.”
Matthews was the busier of the two goalkeepers, and the Swedes certainly impressed with their neat passing in midfield, but I think we suffered for our direct style. Sweden did not allow us anywhere as much time on the ball as had Brazil at Wembley, and they even stopped Duncan Edwards from storming through the middle with his trademark runs. It was not a day for wingers, and I saw as little of the ball at outside-left as Johnny Berry of Manchester United did at outside-right. Given the circumstances, the goalless draw felt like a more than decent result for England.
We flew on to Helsinki for the match against Finland, and again I found myself sitting on the plane next to the ebullient Edwards, whose enthusiasm for life was beginning to make all this travelling feel to me like such an attractive feature of international football. Flying was a novelty in those days, and Edwards did not conceal his love of it.
We defeated Finland 5-1 at the Helsinki Olympiastadion, although it was only two goals by Nat Lofthouse – a substitute for Tommy Taylor just before half-time – in the final 15 minutes that gave the scoreline a semblance of respectability. I was involved in the intricate exchanges of passing that contributed to our third goal, by Gordon Astall in the first half, and I enjoyed far more time on the ball than I had in Stockholm. In status, the Finns were as amateur as the Swedes, but not as efficient or as talented. Indeed, the Finland substitute goalkeeper, Aarre Klinga, who played the latter stages, was as much a basketball player and an ice hockey player as he was a footballer.
Evidently, the match must have been more fun to play than to watch. The Times reported, rather grandiloquently: “[A]ll one longed for was the arrival of Father Christmas from Lapland behind a train of reindeer bearing some gifts, out of season perhaps but more appropriate than the football, to the beauty of the northern day.”
As I had learnt after the match at Wembley against Brazil, scoring two goals for England has an intoxicating effect; as if providing the benefits of alcohol without the detriments. This time, after the Finland match, it was Nat Lofthouse’s turn to feel drunk on success, and it was impossible to avoid his joviality as we went to a bar to ease some of the pressure of the previous two weeks. He had just become England’s joint all-time leading goalscorer alongside Vivian Woodward on 29 after his two strikes in Helsinki.
Late in the evening, as laughter and music filled the air, Lofthouse approached the pianist, who earlier in the day had played centre-forward for Finland, and said words to the effect of: “One of the England players has a voice like Al Jolson, so you should get him up to sing.” Unbeknown to me, the word had got around the England players that I had performed as a crooner in the Havercroft Working Men’s Club and that I liked to sing in the bath after matches.
There are three things Lofthouse did not expect: first, that the pianist would invite me up on stage; second, that I would agree to perform; third, that I would actually sing as if I had been practising all my life for this moment. “Wait a minute!” I shouted to warm applause, re-enacting the opening words of my act in Havercroft. “Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!” And then, to growing cheers, I would croon with a confidence that nobody knew I possessed. It was just like the old days at Havercroft when I was a teenager.
And here my routine was the same. First, I attempted Al Jolson, and I could see each of the England players wearing the same bewildered expression; as if to say: “I didn’t expect this.” Then I attempted Nat King Cole. And then Billy Eckstine, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray and Billy Daniels. And afterwards the intensity of the applause took me by surprise. What should have been Nat Lofthouse’s night became my night. "Come on, Colin, give us a song," became the catchphrase among the England players, just as it had among my pals eight years earlier. Unlike my days as a teenager singing in Havercroft, however, journalists were there in Helsinki to witness my stagecraft.
The best part was that the pianist did not know any of the songs, so he stopped trying to play. I sang without any music.
The story about the ‘Singing Winger’ made the newspapers back in England.
We moved on to West Germany to face the winners of the 1954 World Cup – England’s most important match since losing in the quarter-finals in that tournament. The trip to Berlin crystallised once and for all the positive feelings I had developed for West Germany during the tours of 1954 and 1955 with Sheffield United. The place and the people intrigued me. By now, 11 years on from VE Day, my perception was the German people felt as if World War Two was in the past, and that it was no longer the dominant cultural influence and political issue in West German society. The Germans no doubt felt differently because the past was still part of their present. But insofar as the viewpoint of an outsider is valid, I felt that I was visiting a country obsessed with creating an exciting future. The German public seemed extremely friendly and happy to see us. There was certainly no feeling that the two nations had been enemies from 1939-45. We were now in a time of peace and that was how it felt. Everywhere we turned we could see a nation in transition, rebuilding the infrastructure, with as much work going on at night as in the day – as if the country was impatient, trying desperately to meet a deadline to finish the work. Consequently, my own attitude to the Germans was one of admiration. Having grown up in a mining village, I learnt the importance of a good work ethic, so I was impressed by how hard the Germans grafted. I could see at first hand the improvements in the West German infrastructure. By 1956, the improvements were even greater. There was still a lot of rubble, of course, but at no time did the Germans present to us the face of defeat or of insecurity. My prevailing views of West Germany were of charming friendliness and admirable determination.
I liked Berlin even in 1956, when it was evolving and still disfigured by scaffolding. But we only saw the parts of Berlin that were deemed by the Football Association to be politically appropriate. Our tour to West Germany was organised strictly; far stricter, in fact, than when we visited Helsinki and Stockholm. We could never go out in Berlin without any form of supervision. Every trip – whether to Belsen, which was sad, or through the Black Forest, which was wonderful, or in our bus around the city, which was interesting – was planned to keep us under control. In one sense, we were ambassadors for our country. But we were also young men excited by the novelty of being so far from home. The FA officials impressed upon us the need to behave respectfully at all times. We prepared at the West German State football school in Barsinghausen, near Hanover, and enjoyed facilities of the highest standard – certainly far better than those we had experienced at Lilleshall.
Once in Berlin, we found our movements controlled by well-dressed civil servants based in the British sector. We went nowhere near East Berlin because there were obviously political sensitivities. We were therefore unable to appreciate the differences between the Soviet sector and the rest of the city. There was no Berlin Wall then, of course, and I never felt that we were in a divided city. I do not recall seeing anything that resembled a border between West and East Berlin, although a barrier obviously existed. Our schedule was so controlled that we only really saw what the FA officials wanted us to see. The one thing I do recall was that there were British and American soldiers everywhere; thousands of them, or so it seemed.
It was certainly a privilege to play against the world champions in their own stadium. The Olympiastadion was inspiring, and, of course, there were historical connotations, too – not least those grainy images of Jesse Owens that survived from the 1936 Olympic Games. There were 90-odd thousand people there for our match and the noise was deafening when we walked around the track before entering the pitch at the halfway line. Naturally the Germans were full of enthusiasm, but the stadium also had large sections full of British, American and French soldiers, so there were cheers for us when we took to the field. It was easy to spot the British soldiers: they were the ones sporting oversized hats, carrying rattles and banners. By and large, the soldiers looked after us and were always keen to talk football.
Each England player had his own motivations that day. While I saw the value in playing the world champions, and knew West Germany would provide a yardstick of where England stood in the pantheon of international football, I had greater concerns, like playing well enough personally to keep my place in the team and ensuring that I did not let my family down. I wanted to maintain the form I had shown against Brazil. Against the Germans, I think I produced one of the best displays of my career. Afterwards, somebody showed me a German-language newspaper report about the match, which said that I was England's best player. I could have scored twice early on but I did score just after the hour mark to put us two-nil up. We won 3-1 and the West Germany players were genuinely riled at losing the match. West Germany had some fine players, most notably Fritz Walter, their inside-forward, who was their captain when they won the World Cup in 1954. But there was the sense that already they were in decline. It was hard to imagine that they would win a World Cup had a tournament taken place in 1956. England, by contrast, might have had a chance. Afterwards, however, there were no pleasantries. Unlike the Brazilians, who hung around to talk to us at Wembley, the West Germans melted into the Berlin night. In the language of those times, the headlines made interesting reading.
“Tommies give Berlin Soccer Sector: Colin Grainger is in Wright class.”
“Grainger best, say Germans.”
“It’s Sunday! Young England put us on top again.”
“Colin Grainger stole the show.”
“England a match for anybody.”
With typical bombast, Tony Stevens, reporting from the Olympiastadion, wrote: “Oh! It’s great to be in Berlin now that England’s here! For Berlin, the sector city, is a piece of England this glorious day. The two-toned town – bright lights in the Western part, and that dreary old tombstone city past the Brandenburg Gate and into the Russian sector – has had itself a week-end spree. The leather-jacketed police have been indulgent. Sweeping-up operations did not start until early this morning. Now small knots of deliriously happy British soldiers are on their way back to camp all over Germany, after celebrating in the old-fashioned way after yesterday’s famous 3-1 victory in the Olympic Stadium here... At last English soccer has something to be happy about.”
Roy Peskett, a doyen of the game, described my “smooth speed and goalscoring ability”, which reminded him of no less a figure than Cliff Bastin, that supremely gifted Arsenal star of the 30s. A German newspaper awarded me its man-of-the-match. Walter Winterbottom, not usually one to highlight individual performances, said: “I was extremely pleased with Colin Grainger.”
Overall, the experience was a lot to take in for a relatively young man. There we were, a group of young lads, going to face the world champions, and defeating them in their own stadium. But it was more than a football match. It was an education that taught me all about the fortitude of the German people. Although the presence of foreign soldiers provided permanent reminders of external political influences, West Germany was already offering images of what the 60s might look like.
This is an edited extract from Colin Grainger’s autobiography, The Singing Winger, published by De Coubertin.