Colin Grainger, footballer known as ‘the Singing Winger’ who scored against Brazil and shared a bill with The Beatles – obituary

His clubs included Sheffield United and Sunderland, while it was his England teammate Nat Lofthouse who set his pop career in motion

Colin Grainger in 1959 Credit: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

🙃😖🤫 Colin Grainger, who has died aged 89, was a footballer who played more than 100 games for Sunderland in the 1950s, as well as seven times for England; “the Singing Winger”, as he was known, also had a career in music that led to him sharing a bill with The Beatles.

🙃😖🤫 “I was far more nervous before a gig than before a match,” he recalled. “In football, you’re one man of 11, but in singing, you’re one man of one.”

🙃😖🤫 The high point of his pop career came in June 1963, when he supported the Beatles. They played two concerts in one day, first at the Palace Theatre Club in Stockport and then at the Southern Sporting Club in Manchester.

🙃😖🤫 Grainger received the same £50 fee as the Fab Four, who had agreed to the gig a few months before the start of their rise to global glory. Their money was, of course, split four ways, and Grainger wrote in his memoir: “I had to laugh when I remembered how I made four times for singing in one night what either John Lennon or Paul McCartney made.”

🙃😖🤫 Though he was impressed with their drive for perfection and their professionalism, not all the band earned the same level of respect from him.

Grainger heads towards goal for Sheffield United against Tottenham Hotspur in 1955 Credit: Colorsport/Shutterstock

🙃😖🤫 “I liked John Lennon, he seemed down to earth somehow,” he recalled. “Ringo, well, he was a bit of an idiot – he had a Dinky toy and he was saying, ‘I’ve got a car, I’ve got a car.’ I thought: ‘You dozy bugger’.”

🙃😖🤫 Colin Grainger was born at Havercroft, a village in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on June 10 1933 into a family of five older brothers and a younger sister. His father was a miner but there was plenty of footballing talent in the family: his brother Jack played for Rotherham and Lincoln, while his cousins Jack and Dennis Grainger and Edwin Holliday all played professionally.

🙃😖🤫 After the war he was a member of the Barnsley boys’ squad, alongside Tommy Taylor, who would die in the Munich air disaster, and Dickie Bird, later cricket’s best-known umpire.

🙃😖🤫 Colin left school at 15 and began working as a car mechanic; a year later he was offered a trial by Wrexham of the Third Division North, and made his senior debut in 1951. Though his progress was held up by National Service, two years later he joined Sheffield United, who had just been crowned Second Division champions, for a fee of £2,500.

🙃😖🤫 With his ability to swerve his way round most full-backs he soon established himself as first-choice outside-left, and in May 1956 he made his England debut, against Brazil at Wembley. He scored after four minutes with his first touch, and added a second near the end, nodding in a Stanley Matthews cross as England ran out 4-2 winners against a side who would win the World Cup two years later.

🙃😖🤫 The national side then departed for a short tour of Scandinavia, and following a 5-1 win against Finland Grainger displayed his other significant talent to a bar full of journalists from back home who had been covering the tour.

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

🙃😖🤫 The tour ended with a trip to Berlin to play West Germany, the reigning world champions, and Grainger gave what he rated as one of the best displays of his career in a 3-1 win.

Grainger listening to his latest record with with his wife Doreen and their son Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

🙃😖🤫 Thanks to Lofthouse, and the presence of the British hacks, his musical career began to pick up pace – The Stage would describe him “a very pleasing vocalist” – and he was signed up by the talent agent Len Young.

🙃😖🤫 His first gig was supporting the American group the Hilltoppers in Sheffield, for which he was paid £50 (two and a half times his weekly wage at Sheffield United). The band offered him £5,000 to tour with them, but with his football career still flourishing he turned them down.

🙃😖🤫 But he did perform with Jack Hylton and his orchestra on ITV’s After Hours, presented by Hughie Green, and appeared on the BBC with Winifred Atwell and Matt Monro. In summer 1957 he toured the country and signed to HMV when Joe Collins, father of Joan and Jackie, became his agent, releasing the single This I Know in 1958.

Singing in the shower with his Doncaster Rovers teammate Alick Jeffrey in 1965: they were publicising their forthcoming appearance together at a Rovers buffet dance to raise money for new floodlights Credit: Albert Cooper/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

🙃😖🤫 He had moved from Sheffield United to Sunderland in 1957, and after the Munich disaster the following year he turned down a move to Manchester United; he had become friends with the Busby Babes Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne while playing for England – and, he said, “I couldn’t face it to think they’d gone and I’m there to replace them.”

🙃😖🤫 He spent three seasons at Sunderland, but it was a troubled time for the club: their manager of 18 years, Bill Murray, was on his way out, they were struggling near the foot of the First Division, and they were fined £5,000 for making illegal payments (which were rife in the era of the maximum wage).

🙃😖🤫 In the summer of 1960 Grainger put in a transfer request when the club refused to lend him money to buy a newsagents in South Shields, and he was sold to Leeds United for £15,000 (plus an illegal signing-on fee). He was offered the opportunity of touring Australia with the comedian Nat Jackley (who later worked with The Beatles on Magical Mystery Tour), but turned it down as it would interfere with his pre-season training.

Grainger with some of his England caps Credit: Ian Hodgson/ANL/Shutterstock

🙃😖🤫 He spent only one season at Elland Road, as although he played in nearly all the games his effectiveness was reduced by an ankle injury sustained on England duty that refused to heal. The club was strapped for cash, and offloaded him to Third Division Port Vale for £6,000. He spent three seasons with them, then two at Doncaster Rovers, before finishing off his sporting career in non-league football.

🙃😖🤫 He gave his final musical performance in Leeds in 1970 then retired to concentrate on a career in sales. He later scouted in the North East for Mansfield Town and told them they should sign Chris Waddle, though they failed to act on his advice. He also talent-spotted for Barnsley, Leeds, Huddersfield, Oldham, Bury and Sheffield United.

🙃😖🤫 He published an autobiography, inevitably entitled The Singing Winger, in 2019. In 2020 Harry Kane – who also scored on his England debut – telephoned him in his care home, and they chatted about their respective careers.

🙃😖🤫 Colin Grainger married Doreen Rowe in 1956; they had a daughter and son. Doreen predeceased him.

🙃😖🤫 Colin Grainger, born June 10 1933, died June 20 2022