Book Review: Colin Grainger - The Singing Winger
Background image: Colin Grainger
When reading footballers’ autobiographies, I often get the impression their ghostwriters had the devil of a time getting anything interesting out of them. Picture some overpaid hack begging an ex-international to say something interesting, while the baffled subject of the book spouts platitudes about working hard and giving something back to the community.
It’s hard to imagine that was the case when experienced journalist Hyder Jawad sat down with Colin Grainger to write The Singing Winger. The former England winger played at just about every level in English football, also enjoying a career as a singer (hence the book’s title) sharing a bill with the Beatles and recording with HMV.
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Grainger comes across as the type of person overflowing with stories from a fascinating life and Jawad does a fine job of smoothing those experiences into a satisfying narrative. The Yorkshireman’s time in showbiz certainly gives his tale an interesting spin, but even without the singing element, this would still be an entertaining read.
Grainger’s tales of football life in the 50s and 60s offer a fascinating insight into how much the game and society overall has metamorphosed. From humble beginnings with Wrexham, where as a youngster he was employed as an apprentice footballer/ member of groundstaff, expected to clean the first teamer’s boots as well as training part-time, to playing in the first division for Sheffield United, during which time he shared a bed in his parents' house. Unthinkable nowadays, but an endearing reminder of the innocence and humble nature of decades past. Imagine if Gary and Phil Neville had shared a bed at their mum’s house in the prime of their careers, or picture Yaya and Kolo Touré scrapping over the Spiderman duvet!
Image credit: Colin Grainger
Grainger played in the top five tiers of English football, the League Cup, the FA Trophy, the FA Vase and earned eight caps for England, a fact which packs his tale with interest. Spells with Doncaster and Macclesfield may not be the most glamorous experiences, but they add more depth and humility to the book than if the subject had been routinely at the top of the league.
The singing element of the book, though intriguing, feels a bit light at times, confined largely to short sections in which Grainger recalls brief stops in nightclubs. While he picks over the characters of his teammates at his various clubs, as well as spinning training ground yarns and analysing dressing room atmosphere, the singing passages never really get into the meat of things. Perhaps that’s because of the nature of Grainger’s singing as a sideline to football.
There would be a risk a book like this would descend into the realms of unaltered nostalgia. But while there’s plenty of justified reminiscences of times long gone, Grainger and Jawad don’t shy away from some of the uglier elements of the time; the racism, the illegal backhanders, the appalling lack of physiotherapy and medical treatment for players. Still, Grainger gives a genuinely warm, intriguing glimpse into the life of a 20th-century footballer, shedding light on social progression, family life and economic changes along the way.
Often, when I’m asked to review a book, I read through it as quickly as possible before giving it to a friend or family member who might want to read it. But when I finished the Singing Winger, I put it straight onto my bookshelf. That dive into a lost football world of £20 maximum wages and professionals on National Service was intoxicating; an experience I may wish to repeat in the fullness of time.