Described as a warm and engaging character up to his death, Colin Grainger must surely be one of the most multi-talented individuals ever to play for Sunderland.
Born in 1933 in Havercroft near Wakefield, he was part of a footballing family that saw his brother Jack and cousins Jack and Dennis all play professionally. His brother-in-law was Jim Iley who played for Newcastle and Spurs, among others.
In 1946/47 Grainger was attracting attention playing for Barnsley Boys squad, alongside Tommy Taylor, who would tragically lose his life in the Munich Air Disaster, and Dickie Bird, who would go on to be an international cricket umpire.
Grainger’s professional career started at Wrexham in 1950 but was interrupted by National Service. A transfer to Sheffield United in 1953 would see his career as one of the fastest left wingers in the game take off. He played 88 league games and scored 26 goals for the Blades between 1953 and 1957.
Starring on the international stage
His form was so good that he forced his way into a star-studded England squad in 1956 alongside the likes of Duncan Edwards, Billy Wright, Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Johnny Haynes and Stanley Mathews, as well as his future club colleague Don Revie.
His debut against Brazil at Wembley saw him score in the 5th and the 83rd minute as England recorded a 4-2 victory. Not a bad way to introduce yourself, and you can enjoy three minutes of highlights here!
In all, Grainger won seven England caps over an 11-month period in 1956/57, scoring three goals. Unfortunately, he picked up an ankle injury in his sixth game, against Wales, and despite playing one more time for England, against Scotland, he never fully recovered from this injury and lost his place in the squad that competed in the 1958 World Cup.
While his football talents were evident, it was while on international duty another talent would come to the fore.
It was allegedly Nat Lofthouse on the 1956 Scandinavian tour who encouraged Grainger to sing in a pub full of sports journalists and triggered the birth of “the singing winger”.
Word got around, and his Scandinavian turn let to his first professional gig in 1956, which in turn led to an offer to tour with the Hilltoppers and a whopping £20,000 per year contract!
Earning less than £20 per week in the era of the maximum wage in football, such an offer must have been tempting, but football was his first love and he returned to Sheffield United.
He would augment his football wage with singing engagements on the club circuit and regularly appeared on tv and radio over the next few years.
Whilst playing for Sunderland in 1957 he topped the bill at the Sunderland Empire and in 1958 he released “This I Know/Are You” on the HMV label. In 1959 during the close season, he topped the bill at the Metropolitan Theatre in London with Max Miller. I wonder what disciplinarian manager Alan Brown made of the Singing Winger?
In 1963, after he’d retired from the professional game, he appeared on the same bill as The Beatles – in Stockport, of all places. The soprano with the ability to sustain notes for prolonged periods was quoted as saying he was never as nervous playing football as this was a team game, as a singer he was up there all alone!
The Singing Winger hits the right notes for Sunderland
Of course, before he lined up with John, Paul, George and Ringo, he was lining up alongside the likes of Charlie Fleming, Don Revie, Billy Bingham and Stan Anderson, after signing for Bill Murray’s Sunderland in February 1957.
Long-time manager Murray paid £23,000 for the England international as the “Bank of England” club continued to flash the chequebook, having paid £22,000 for England international Revie earlier in the season. He joined a squad that – in addition to the names above – contained the likes of Ted Purdon, Len Shackleton, Billy Elliott, and Ray Daniel. On paper a particularly good squad.
But trouble was brewing.
Grainger made 13 appearances from his arrival to the end of that season making a good impression on his fellow players and supporters, despite the disappointing season for the team.
The season end saw the club heavily fined for illegal payments to players and Directors banned from the game. The club was in upheaval as the scandal rocked its corridors.
The after-effects would dog the club for a decade or more and were the backdrop to all of Colin Grainger’s time with the club.
Manager Murray was one of the casualties, replaced by disciplinarian Alan Brown, and Brown and Grainger did not agree completely in terms of football philosophy.
Brown insisted on his wingers tracking back and assuming a defensive responsibility, which curbed Grainger’s natural attacking game to the extent that he is quoted as saying later about Brown “his presence created discord where there had been harmony, anxiety out of tranquillity, football felt like a job and training a prison sentence.”
Despite this, and our relegation to Division Two for the very first time in our history at the end of 1957/58 season, the Singing Winger racked up healthy appearance figures as well as plaudits for his performances from media and fans.
His form was good enough to be under consideration for an England recall in season 58/59, but unfortunately, he broke his collarbone in a 1-0 victory over Huddersfield, which ended any hopes of a return. In all, he made 124 appearances for Sunderland scoring 14 goals between February 1957 and July 1960.
A dispute with the directors towards the end of season 1959/60 left him disillusioned and he refused to play for the club, which saw him branded as a football rebel by the local and national press. At the same time, Stan Anderson, Reg Pearce, Ernie Taylor and Alan O’Neil had also demanded interviews with the directors over the way the club was being run!
The dispute was terminated by his sale to Leeds United for a then-record fee of £15,000, where he was reunited with his former teammate Don Revie.
Colin Grainger went on to play for Port Vale and Doncaster Rovers between 1961 and 1966, and by the end of his professional career he had racked up 328 league appearances scoring 54 goals.
With spells at non-league Macclesfield Town and Newmillerdam, he then turned out for Wooley Miners Welfare in the Yorkshire league from 1972 to 1978, earning promotion to YL Division 2 in 1972/73.
After retiring from professional football in 1970, the Singing Winger became the Selling Winger as he ended his stage career to concentrate on a new job in sales.
He continued to top up his salary by scouting, first for former Sunderland colleague Billy Bingham at Mansfield Town (he recommended Chris Waddle to Bingham). He then worked for Allan Clarke at Barnsley and Leeds in a similar role, as well as former Sunderland manager Mick Buxton at Huddersfield and Neil Warnock at Oldham, Bury and Sheffield Utd.
There is no doubt Colin Grainger played for Sunderland during one of the most turbulent periods in our history, but despite this, he is remembered as one of the fastest left-wingers of his generation, widely appreciated by his colleagues.
Charlie Hurley, Len Ashurst and Stan Anderson to name three were admirers not only of his footballing skills, but of his singing talent too!
Rest in Peace, Colin Grainger, the Singing Winger.