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. 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,” read 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 OK? 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.
• This excerpt from Colin Grainger’s autobiography The Singing Winger was published first on The Blizzard. A digital subscription to The Blizzard gives you access to more than 700 pieces of long-form football writing for just £20.