Tuesday, 17 July 2012

God Bless the Glimmer Twins

A nice anniversary last week – 50 years since the Rolling Stones played their first gig at the Marquee Club in London.  50 years!  No other band from those days is still around, alive and kicking, even if a little ragged around the edges.  It’s a quite extraordinary achievement, given the lifestyle they’ve led this half century.
I salute them.
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I can still remember the first time I saw them on Top of the Pops.

I was 9 at the time, I guess, or 10, and up until then my music had been provided by my elder sister’s tastes – which was basically Cliff, Cliff, more Cliff, a bit of Adam Faith, maybe a Marty Wilde or two….oh, and yet more Cliff.  That and Two Way Family Favourites on a Sunday lunchtime, which was all Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra (nothing wrong with either of them, mind you….), and novelty stuff like “The Laughing Policeman”.  Oh, and Cliff……  So crap, basically.

The Stones even then had a reputation of being wild and hedonistic.  You have to remember that in the early 60s artistes were still expected to be well groomed on stage: matching suits and ties, neatly combed and Brilliantine’d hair, and saccharine smiles.  If they could master little carefully choreographed dance steps (usually one forward, one or two to the left (or right), one back and then another two to the right (or left) so they ended up where they started from, like the Shadows were really good at), then so much the better.

So these guys from South London, as they were billed, who didn’t wear matching suits, sometimes didn’t wear ties, didn’t apply buckets of grease to their (longer than normal) hair and – in Keef’s case, horror of horrors! – had a bit of acne…..well, they were instantly disliked by mums and dads across the country.  And of course loved by us kids….nothing like a bit of youthful rebellion.

Anyhow, they were on TOTP, singing their first hit record, the old Chuck Berry song “Come On”.  Mick Jagger, I remember, wore a roll necked jumper – no idea what colour as we still had a black and white tv – and manically shook a pair of maracas while bawling into the mike and stamping one foot roughly in time to the music.  Keef was glowering at the camera, Bill Wyman held his bass vertically instead of slung across his belly, and looked bored, as did Charlie Watts on drums.  Brian Jones looked absolutely stoned, smiling angelically at the camera every time it was pointed in his direction, his face framed by long blond hair (at least to his collar).  It was totally unlike anything I had seen before on 6-5 Special or Ready Steady Go! (or TOTP for that matter) and was the absolute dog’s bollocks.  Love at first sight.  My mum, God rest her soul, rather spoilt it all by laughing long and loud at Mick’s “rubber lips” and saying over and over again how ugly and dirty they all were.   But her view was no different to every other parent, I suppose.  My dad shook his head sadly, as if to say “and to think I fought a war for you lot…..”  My sister liked them, I think, as she was tapping her foot to the beat, but still laughed and agreed with my mum and dad…..it wasn’t Cliff, after all.

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The Beatles came out at around the same time, and were always in marked contrast to the Stones.  For one thing, they toed the corporate line and wore the matching suits and ties, and had relatively tidy – though still longer than normal – hair.  Mums and dads loved them – as did we young ‘uns, because their music too was unlike anything that had gone before.  But there was no getting away from it – they were the kids from the nice neighbourhood, whereas the Stones were the scruffs from the local council estate.  Interestingly, the reverse was true: the Beatles came from the generally poorer parts of Liverpool that in years to come would be riven by civil unrest and unemployment as the docks closed down, while Mick and Keef came from relatively well to do parts of Dartford and Wilmington – Mick’s dad was a school headmaster, a nice cosy middle class occupation – and both went to better schools (Dartford Grammar and Wilmington Tech respectively) than any of the Beatles had been to in their childhood.  Brian Jones went to a private school in Bath, and both Charlie and Bill had had decent education too.

What made the Stones different, from the wrong side of tracks, was that their music was an Anglicized (but definitely not sanitized) version of rhythm and blues – American black music.  While the Beatles were churning out wonderful two minute pop songs like She Loves You and I Wanna Hold Your Hand,  Mick was bawling Let’s Spend the Night Together and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.  The contrast was sharp and obvious.  It was there throughout their respective careers.  Even as they grew musically and became leaders of the psychodelic movement, the Beatles still had a tendency to release sugary sweet or novelty songs (When I’m 64, Octopuses Garden) alongside Lennon’s meatier output (Revolution, Twist and Shout) – whereas the Stones continued their own dirty way – Brown Sugar, Street Fighting Man and especially the wonderful Sympathy for the Devil.   And so parents tended still to prefer the Beatles, and their offspring tended to prefer the Stones – certainly that’s how it was in my family, and those of all my mates too.

The Beatles of course imploded finally, in a welter of drugs and litigation, all very sad, and went their separate ways, leaving a brilliant and game changing back catalogue of songs and the lesson that any group of kids could really get together, learn to play a few instruments (not necessarily well), and make a shedload of money – just ask Noel Gallagher.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that any “pop group” from about 1964 on owes them a debt of gratitude for showing them the way.

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Meanwhile, the Stones trod their own path.  There were more drugs, more sex, more of everything, and it made no difference.  They were arrested and taken to court for pissing up against a garage wall – cue public outrage.  There were more court cases for possession and smoking of cannabis.  More outrage.  There was a spectacular drug raid on Keef’s country mansion, where a naked Marianne Faithful (Mick’s then girlfriend) was allegedly pleasuring herself with a Mars Bar – years later she reportedly denied it, and insisted it was actually a Crunchie bar.  Brian Jones died in his swimming pool, drowning under the influence of various toxic substances.  Mick and Keef were continually in and out of detox clinics, trying to kick heroin and cocaine addictions with varying degrees of success.  Bill was accused of having sex with an underage girl, and didn’t help his cause by claiming he’d actually slept with “thousands”.  It was all riveting stuff, and the music really didn’t suffer while all this was going on……they churned out brilliant album after brilliant album, each seemingly better than the last.

Brian died and was replaced by Mick Taylor, a respected blues guitarist, but surprisingly he didn’t fit in with the rest of them and quit a year and an album later.  Ronnie Wood joined, fresh from an all too briefly successful career with the brilliant Faces, who themselves collapsed when Rod Stewart simultaneously left to find world-wide fame and fortune as a solo artist (personally I think his Faces days produced by far and away the best music of his career).  Bill just got bored and left, married, divorced, re-married again (this time to a girl 30 years younger – more outrage!) and divorced again, and devoted his time, musically at least, to occasional albums and tours with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, a pick-up band of session musicians and old mates who fancied a few gigs now and then – and very good they are too.

The Stones tours got bigger and more outrageous, lasting for years at a time, and printing money faster than even Keef’s drug habit could spend it.  At times it became parody, especially in the later years, as their 50s approached.  But they got a second wind, went back to their roots and picked it up again with the epic Steel Wheels and Bigger Bang tours – global tours that outgrossed very other act doing the rounds.  Only U2 have made more out of a single tour.

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So here we are, an amazing fifty years on, and they’re still going strong.  Charlie has beaten cancer and is still playing perfect drums.  Ronnie Wood has been in and out of rehab, made a second career as a session musician, a third as an artist in oils and watercolours, and is now busily carving out a fourth career as an award winning radio presenter.  Mick even got a knighthood.  Keef should have died a dozen times from the unbelievable amount of toxic substances of one kind or another that he’s taken either orally or intravenously, but came closest to death when he fell out of a coconut tree, sober, and fractured his skull.  Needless to say he recovered and was back on the road within a couple of months.   His autobiography is one of the best and funniest books I’ve ever read – taking the lid off life in the world’s biggest and best rock’n’roll band, and providing the man’s own recipe for bangers and mash (his favourite meal ) – I’ve tried it and it’s really good.   He looks a wreck, as though he died years ago and has been re-animated, but he’s the perfect Rock Star image: aviator shades, bangles and bracelets, a voice shot to hell by too much brandy and nicotine, hands that look like they’ve been through a mincer – no-one else comes close.  The man’s a genius.  My hero.

A couple of years ago, one of my kids bought me their Forty Licks greatest hits compilation, a double CD that really is the soundtrack to my life.   Forty pieces of quite wonderful rock and r’n’b music by a bunch of guys who changed the world.  I was listening to it on the iPod at the weekend as I wandered around London in the rain, my first visit for maybe two or three years.  Sympathy for the Devil playing loud in my ears as I wandered around Canary Wharf was quite fitting, I thought….. 

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They’re planning another tour, although they’re all well in their 60s (in Charlie’s case 70-odd, but he still looks pretty sprightly).    In a way I’d love to go to a concert, but I would be worried that at their age it would be crap, like Sinatra’s much vaunted Albert Hall concert back in the early 80s, when his voice was gone and he had to sit on a stool and read the lyrics from sheet music on a stand in front of him – a tragic end to performing of another game-changing genius.   I’ve never seen the Stones live – back in the 70s my mate had tickets for their Hyde Park concert and I was going with him, but the night before he phoned me up and announced he was taking some bird from the office instead – the bastard.  It turned out to be one of their best ever shows…..  The only silver lining was that the bird hated it, and wouldn’t sleep with my mate – serves the fucker right.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Bashing the Bankers is wrong

I’m possibly one of the few people in Britain, if not the world, that is sympathetic towards Bob Diamond.

OK, he hasn’t helped his case by his recent appearance before the Commons Select Committee, not so much for being evasive and giving answers that were possibly somewhat liberal with the truth, but more for his smarmy and condescending attitude in calling the MPs by their Christian names rather than Mr Something or Mrs Something Else.  But then he’s an American, and an American banker to boot, a Master of the Universe, so I wouldn’t expect anything more from the bloke.

But I can’t help feeling he is being rather hung out to dry over this latest “financial crisis” to visit itself upon the Great British Public – the LIBOR Scandal.

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The London Interbank Borrowing Rate, to give it its full title, is essentially the rate at which banks are prepared to lend money to each other.  The rate is fixed – in this context possibly not the best term – at 11:00 every morning, essentially by someone contacting about 50 major banks to get their proposed rate, then averaging out the responses to arrive at the agreed LIBOR rate.  It is then published to The Market, using all the tools available – the Reuters and Bloomberg trading systems, Telekurs, the Financial Times, the internet, everything – anyone in the financial markets will have access to this rate within minutes of the decision.  The rate is fixed for various terms – overnight, a week, a month, quarterly, six months, and out to a year - and for various currencies.

But the point is, it’s a reference rate, no more and no less – nobody ever borrows or lends money at that rate.  There is always a small adjustment agreed between any two parties concluding a deal, that can be based on any number of criteria – the amount of cash being exchanged, the creditworthiness of the borrower, and so on. 

Now then, as far as the general public are concerned, the rate they pay on their mortgage, or overdraft, or receive on their credit balances, or whatever, is NOT LIBOR – it’s another rate entirely, one that is fixed solely by their bank and not by the syndicate of banks that decide the LIBOR rate, and this rate is not necessarily even pegged to LIBOR or affected by it in any way.  Anything that is being written in the newspapers or spouted by MPs or Talking Heads on the television is simply not true and designed solely to discredit Diamond in particular and bankers more generally – essentially to improve the copy or gain votes by scare mongering and pandering to the uninformed masses – that’s you, Dear Reader.

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As far as I can gather, back in the dark early days of this God-awful global financial crisis that no-one seems to be able to agree about (never mind solve) Barclays Bank, as one of the LIBOR-fixing syndicate – as they quite properly are, given their size, reputation and strength of business – managed to cut a deal or deals with other banks that allowed them to arrive at a better rate for themselves.  If that’s the case, then it’s a classic case of You Scratch My Back And I’ll Scratch Yours – the sort of thing that goes on in every market every single day – not only in banking. 

The fundamental rule in any trading environment is to buy cheap and sell dear – that’s how you make your money.  An example – say you want to buy a new tv.  You look at Curry’s, Dixons, your local electrical goods store, ASDA….wherever the things are sold.  Then, if you’re sensible, you buy the cheapest option that gives you what you want (and that may include after sales services, finance terms, delivery and so on).  Or a car – if you’ve bought from one dealership previously who gave you a good trade-in on your old model, decent warranty and after sales service, then you’re more likely to go back to him next time.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – all you are doing is protecting your own interests.  The dealer selling to you is doing exactly the same – the tv guy has bought the set in bulk, probably from the manufacturer, and knows exactly how much of a discount he can give you before the trade becomes uneconomical for him.  Likewise the guy in the motor trade knows how much he’s paid for the car you want to buy, and he knows what the re-sale value of your current car is too, and factors it all in to ensure he makes a living and a profit.

Nobody complains about this.  In fact everyone is essentially praised for their prudence.  But all that is happening is that Backs are being Scratched.

Now back to Barclays.  Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that they spoke to Credit Suisse and Citibank.  Let’s say they wanted to borrow 5billion quid.  Let’s further say that Credit Suisse say sure, we’ll do that and charge you 4.5%.  Citibank, meanwhile, say ok we’ll do that and charge you 4.45%.  It’s a very small rate difference – but on 5billion it comes out to a decent saving to Barclays.  So who will get the deal?  Citibank.  Because Barclays are being prudent. 

Now, same scenario.  But in this case, Barclays says to Credit Suisse look, can you knock that down to 4.40 please?  We’re trying to re-structure our balance sheet without going cap in hand to the Government here, and we’ve got some friends in the Middle East who are prepared to help us out but we need to pay them a fee – that’s why we need this 5billion – and frankly 4.5 is a bit rich.  Now if you can knock off a bit this time, so we can re-finance and get the kudos for solving our problems without government intervention, we’ll give it back to you next month when that outstanding deal we have maturing with you comes up for renewal….. 

To me, as a banker, Barclays here are still being prudent in trying to reduce the cost of their borrowing and sorting out a problem without having to resort to a government loan – and we all know the absolute mayhem that would hit the press and the markets if Barclays had to do that.  What Barclays is NOT doing, by offering the trade off, is trying to “fix the LIBOR rate”. 

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I wrote here some time ago an article about the Occupy Movement that was then camped at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wall Street in New York and elsewhere.  I basically said then that they were wrong because there was at present no viable alternative to Capitalism, and in the same article decried the fact that Investment Banking was no longer a sought after occupation.  I still believe that.  In the nine months or so since then, little seems to have changed, and this LIBOR crisis (which frankly isn’t a crisis at all, except in the minds of the people who write the news and govern us) is another example of the misinformation that is flying around.

I said then that bankers are not evil people.  They do not set out to hurt and damage other people, nor create hardship for their customers.  In investment banking particularly, they work very hard indeed, under an immense amount of pressure, to achieve results that justify the admittedly exceptional salary packages they earn, and that, generally speaking, they deserve every penny of those rewards.  I stand by those comments as well.

And yet the banker bashing continues unabated – and if anything gets worse.  Certainly Diamond has been hammered over the past week or so.   He has been dubbed greedy, arrogant, incompetent, a liar, a cheat and various equally derogatory terms.  There may be some truth in there, but I cannot believe that anyone who is an incompetent liar can rise to the respected level of running a bank like Barclays – they would be found out much much earlier and get nowhere near that kind of position.  About the only criticism leveled at him that seems to me fair is that he was exceptionally – one might say excessively – well paid, but that is a legacy of his past performance earning him the right to be offered the kind of package that until recently was quite common at the top of the banking industry.  Whether any executive is worth a salary of 2 million quid plus a bonus in deferred stock options ten times that is of course open to question, but I know of no-one who would turn it down if it were offered to them.  That is human nature – call it greed if you like – and Diamond is a normal human being with all the character flaws of the rest of us.  To vilify him for that is patently unfair.   Remember too that neither he nor the bank's management were resposible for that salary package.  In any major company, the pay package for the senior executives such as the CEO (Diamond's position at Barclays) is decided by a Compensation Committee that is made up of senior executives who are not employed by the bank, and the awards are invariably subject to very strict performance criteria - usually relating to business growth, profitability and other measurable drivers.  The fact that Diamond had been receiving his full whack for a number of years suggests to me that he was actually doing a very good job of running the bank in perhaps the most difficult market conditions ever experienced.   No incompetent liar would be able to do that.

That charge of incompetence also seems to be more than a little unreasonable.  Barclays employs getting on for 150,000 people globally.  To expect the CEO to know at any given time what they are all up to, or even what a relatively small portion of them are up to, is a little optimistic.  Like all CEOs, I’m sure he relied on contact with and regular reports from a team of senior executives across all areas of the business, and they in turn would be reliant on similar reports from their subordinates, and so on down the line.  With a long reporting chain through several layers of management, even in the most streamlined of organizations (and it could be argued that Barclays’ management structure was a bit more cumbersome than some) there are going to be misunderstandings, lost in translation moments and perhaps important information overlooked.  There is likely also to be deliberate misinformation.  That too is human nature.  So his protestations that he was not fully aware of what was going on, rather than an indication of professional incompetence or lying, could quite well be no more than the truth.  Clearly an internal investigation is required to identify what exactly he did know, what kind of communications failures occurred, and if that shows that he is a liar then by all means tell the world – but until then back off: he is innocent until proven guilty, surely?  Is that not a core pillar of any reasonable justice system?

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Amid all of this, there are the usual widespread calls for a major overhaul in the banking and regulatory environment to rid the world of this “culture of excessive greed”.  The calls have come from newspaper columnists, from tv pundits, from Members of Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.  The problem is that very few of the people demanding change in this manner have worked in the industry, or have any clue about how things actually do work.  The charge of “fixing the LIBOR rate” in itself demonstrates this lack of knowledge as does the accompanying claim that millions of people have been “cheated into paying higher interest rates” as a result of this “collusion”.  Now it seems the Met Police’s Serious Fraud Squad has become involved and criminal charges are likely.  Probably the FBI will stick their noses in, since there are US banks involved in the LIBOR syndicate, and various other European forces will also join the party to investigate the likes of Deutsche Bank, Societe Generale, Bank Santander and so on.  Where will it all end, I ask myself?  No doubt in tears.
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I find it all very very sad.  I entered banking, via stockbroking, back in 1970, and my parents and family were so proud.  My father had been, amongst other things, a gardener, wounded on active service during World War 2, a furniture removal man, a coalman, , and was then working in a factory, inhaling the dust that would eventually cause the cancer that killed him.  My mother had been in domestic service when they met, and after raising three kids was working in a tobacconists shop.  They were typical working class people.  So for their only son to enter the elevated and very desirable “upper class” stockbroking and banking industry was, to them, the most wonderful thing in the world. 

And it was pretty cool…..because the people working in the industry, at least in the support functions, were as working class as I was, from suburban London, Essex, Kent, Surrey and all points around.  The dealers were of course (at least in those days) better educated – for which read public school and university Old Boys – and we were expected to call them Mr. This and Mrs. That, and they in turn had a tendency to call us Smith or Jones.  It was like being back at school.  But the Back Scratching was still going on, still as much a part of the industry then as now, except it was done in a posh voice rather than Brooklyn, German or Essex accented English.  Oh, and the numbers were far smaller.

It all started changing with Maggie’s reforms in the early 80s, that did away with the distinction between jobbers and brokers, and threw open Stock Exchange membership to banks of all nations.  It coincided with other reforms that Reagan’s Republican administration was introducing in the US, and a period of expansion in the EU (or EEC as it still was then) that opened huge new areas of business in the industry, and introduced all kinds of new and exotic products like swaps, and futures and options, and hedging techniques that were designed to offset liabilities in one product with assets in others to protect banks and investors alike.   The markets generally were exploding, it was a licence to print money for banks and brokers and governments alike, and everyone had an enjoyable time, working hard and playing hard – I developed a liking for Moet champagne around this time, and financially was never so well rewarded (taking into account values then and now). 

But I never ever met anyone who was evil, or greedy, or a cheat.  There were some sharks out there who would do and say whatever it takes to close the deal, but that was nothing new – people like that had existed in all walks of life from time immemorial, and will always exist.  But you accepted that, counted your fingers after shaking their hands, and were wary of them.  You knew you might lose some days, but would win on others, and over the course of a year by and large it all evened out.

We were investment bankers, and we worked very hard for very long hours to earn our salaries – exactly as now.  The difference was that everyone aspired to the same thing – basically, make as much money as you can, to provide for your family and build up savings for your kids’ college funds or whatever, and enjoy life.  That was true in all walks of life (which is why there had been a history of industrial action as unions, often but not always justifiably, tried to obtain better deals and working conditions for their members), but it tended to be easier to achieve in our world even though we had no unions working for us (indeed they were frowned on to the extent that many banks refused to allow their employees to join the few white collar unions that existed on pain of dismissal).  And while everyone aspired to the same thing, people were also trying to join the investment banking world – and that included people working in the retail banks that were attached to and supported by the investment banks.  There was always movement between the two, and almost all of it was one way – retail to investment.  Chasing the dream.  That too was ok – personal aspiration was rightly encouraged and rewarded.  As it should be now.

I still don’t really understand why the world turned against bankers.  There have been financial crises of one kind or another for years – think the Wall Street crash in the 20s, hyper-inflation in between-the- wars Germany that ushered in the Nazi Party, the Asian and South American debt problems in the 70s and 80s – and none of them were directly attributable to the banking industry (which to be fair was not always blameless).  But I can’t remember ever there being this amount of fear and loathing aimed at the profession.   I can’t understand why the collapse of a (yes….) greedy and mismanaged Lehman Brothers and the knock-on effect on other slightly less greedy but no better run RBS, Fortis or whoever, should turn the entire world against the majority of well-run and efficient banks that still exist and provide an essential and efficient service.

The world cannot function without banks, just as it cannot run without electricity in some form or another, or food.  There is no better alternative for managing and caring for the wealth (in its loosest term) that people continue to earn and use to live on, and plan for the future of their children and their children’s children.  I touched on this, too, in the other blog post last year (see Casino Banking: - Why the protesters are wrong).  Make no mistake, there will always be banks.  There will be bad apples employed by them, just as there are bad apples in every other part of society.  There are bad politicians (God know’s there are bad politicians!), there are unhelpful shopkeepers and publicans, lying journalists and awful singers, cheating footballers and incompetent doctors, terrible drivers and idiotic teachers…….but they are all in the minority.  Just as the (allegedly) greedy and incompetent Bob Diamonds in my business are in the minority.

To tar us all with the same brush is not only unfair, it is also grossly offensive to each and every helpful and conscientious bank clerk at Barclays, Lloyds, Metro, Citibank or any other bank you care to name, in any country in the world.  Journalists and politicians alike would do us all a better service by cutting out the meaningless and alarmist rhetoric, and try to understand what they are talking about before they open their mouths and spread the next pile of manure on an already disillusioned and misunderstood, but nonetheless essential and dedicated, profession.

Not that I’m holding my breath……

Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 - according to Travellin Bob

Well, that was pretty good wasn't it?  The tournament, I mean, rather than England's results - which, to be fair, were probably better than expected.

A lot of goals - some of them absolutely fantastic -, only a couple of 0-0 draws and penalty shoot outs, hardly any crowd trouble and in the end Spain won (again) in record breaking fashion.

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Poland and Ukraine both did excellent jobs as hosts, even if their teams were not up to scratch and were eliminated in the group stages.  The hatchet job that Panorama did on them the week before the campaign started proved to be more of the usual amount of bollocks.  Yes, there was some crowd trouble, in Warsaw - more of which in a second - but no obvious neo-Nazi anti-Semitic and racist abuse that the program predicted would happen everywhere: what racist abuse was reported turned out to be by fans of Spain and the Czech Republic and was dealt with quickly (even if a little light-handedly) by UEFA, and so hardly the fault of either Poles or Ukrainians.  There was one minor incident when a group of idiots in Krakow threw a few questionable comments at certain Dutch players in an open training session, but they were pounced on by the police and the Dutch themselves laughed it off.

The biggest problem in fact was avoidable but somehow inevitable as soon as the tournament draw was made last year, placing Russia in the same group as Poland.  But with the fixtures and their dates cast in stone by UEFA, there was probably not a thing the Polish organizers could have done to avoid what followed, unless they were prepared to interfere politically - and under UEFA and FIFA statutes that would have meant their expulsion.  And so, the match between the two countries went ahead in Warsaw on Russia Day....... 

You don't need to be a student of history to figure that problems would be inevitable but still - consider that for 50 years the USSR ruled Poland and placed its own people in positions of power in Warsaw, and that the situation only ended twenty or so years ago (and even up until recently there were unreconstructed Communists in positions of influence  - indeed, there may still be).  Consider too that during the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising in 1944 the advancing Russian army camped on the eastern bank of the Vistula river and thus had a ringside seat as the Nazi Panzer divisions reduced Warsaw to a smoking pile of rubble, refusing to provide any assistance including supply flights that Churchill in particular was desperate to arrange.  Remember that at the end of the 18th centrury, Russia, together with the Austro-Hungarian and Prussian rulers, between them defeated Poland militarily and then divided its territory up between themselves, wiping the name Poland from any maps for over 100 years.

Talk about a recipe for trouble!

Despite the much trumpeted thaw in Polish - Russian relations after Smolensk (the air crash a few years ago that killed the Polish president and his retinue en route to a service commemorating the slaughter by Russian troops disguised as Nazis of several thousand captured Polish officers and soldiers at nearby Katyn) the thaw is only skin deep.  The average Russian still has a very low opinion of Poles and the feeling is certainly reciprocated.  A few years ago I worked on a project here where some of our on site team were Russian.   They refused to speak to the Polish bank employees in any language but Russian, and the Poles refused to reply in anything other than Polish.  This left us English, without a word of either language, trying to mediate the most petty and ridiculous disputes.....

The situation is much the same today.  I had a conversation with a close Polish friend a month or so before the tournament, and he told me that there would be "problems" at the match, as he had been told on a business trip to Moscow (where his company does quite a lot of business) that Putin was financing and arranging for several thousand Russian hooligans to travel to Warsaw for the match.  I laughed it off at the time, but now I'm not so sure.....

On match day, the Russian support - getting on for 20,000 people - met up in the centre of the city and marched to the stadium, carrying banners that were, shall we say, a little inflammatory.  The police had been expecting trouble ever since the local authorities had approved the march - God know's why they had approved it! - so there was a heavy police presence supervising it.   The inveitable happened -  enraged Poles, not all of them football fans, confronted the marching Russians and traded abuse.  It escalated and there were fights, widely televised I'm sure across Europe (certainly they were the lead item on the news channels here).  But considering the many thousands of people involved in these scuffles, there were less than 200 arrests, and very few hospital cases - about half a dozen.  One tournament organiser is quoted today as saying there were no more hospital admissions as a result of the "riot" than would be expected from the average Polish wedding reception. 

At the match, Russian fans unfurled a huge banner reading "This is Russia" - how they managed to get the thing into the stadium is anyone's guess, it must have been 30metres across - and were roundly criticised by everyone.  It was in fact their third disciplinary breach in two matches, and they already have a points deduction from the next qualification process hanging over them - personally I hope the arrogant shits are kicked out.  In any case, for them it all went pear shaped when they were unable to win and left themselves facing an early elimination - the first of the favoured teams to do so.

So overall, the doom and gloom predicted by Panorama and the ridiculous Sol Campbell ("Don't go there, watch it on tv, it ain't worth the rsik, you could come home in a coffin") were shown to be complete sensationalist bullshit and a total insult to all Polish and Ukrainian people.

I'd like to think they would have the decency to issue a public apology - but I'm not holding my breath.

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And what of the football itself?

Well, it was a bloody good tournament that threw up its fair of surprises.

The first was probably England's performance.  We went there with few expectations and even a certain amount of hostility - the appointment of Roy Hodgson as manager in place of Don Fabio was not universally welcomed, nor was the inclusion of (allegedly racist thug) John Terry, (allegedly lumbering) Andy Carroll or (allegedly useless) James Milner and Jordan Henderson in the squad.  Most fans predicted an embarrassing three defeats out of three matches and an early return home.  In the event, Terry justified his selection by some solid, even heroic, defensive performances, and Carroll scored one of our few goals with a towering header.  Milner was indeed useless, and Henderson not on the pitch long enough to register.  So instead of finishing pointless, we in fact won the group, and reached a quarter final against Italy, which we predictably drew 0-0 and lost on penalties.  But at least we got out of a potentially tricky group, and along the way beat Sweden for the first time ever in a competitive fixture.....so I suppose there is some hope for the future for us optimists.

Poland and Ukraine, while excellent host nations, weren't up to it as teams.  Poland froze in their opening match against Greece and after leading 1-0 at half time managed to drop a point.  They also drew with our friendly Russki neighbours and were left needing a win against the Czech Republic to go through.  We lost convincingly and the coach promptly resigned.  Ukraine, meanwhile, went into the final game against England also needing a win to progress and lost to a Wayne Rooney goal - his sole contribution to the tournament, having been suspended for the first two games and basically crap against both Ukraine and Italy.  The match also featured another "goal that wasn't", but this time England were the beneficiaries of the lack of goalline technology - the ball was at least a foot over the line before Terry hacked it clear.  The usual uproar followed, the match officials were pilloried and even Teflon Sepp Blatter admitted something had to be done.  The fact that the Ukrainian guy who "scored" was offside when the ball was played through to him was conveniently ignored during all this ballyhoo.

Meanwhile, pre-tournament fancies (and perennial under-achievers) Holland contrived to lose all three of their matches amid the usual in-fighting.  Robin van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who between them scored something like 70 goals last season, clearly packed the wrong boots, misfired completely, and were thus a major factor in their exit.  The coach resigned.  Another fancied team, France, never really recovered from failing to beat England first game and although they qualified for the quarter finals as runners up, they there met Spain who were much too good for them and eliminated them, amid the usual French in-fighting.  The coach resigned.

Portugal, another favoured team, reached the semi finals, largely on the back of increasingly gelled and perma-tanned Cristiano Ronaldo.  He, as captain, was the centre of attention and absolutely loved it - every time he blazed another free kick into Row Z, second tier, which he did frequently, he seemed to check that he was in close up on the big screen at each ground (of course he always was) before reacting in a suitably histrionic fashion.  He also traded simulation - sorry, fouls - sorry, CHEATING - on a match to match basis with Cesc Fabregas, seemingly Spain's new golden boy, and along the way managed to score goals too.  After one finish, against Holland, came one of the moments of the tournament for me.  Earlier, Rafa van der Vaart had been mobbed by his team mates after opening the scoring.  CR7, meanwhile, scored and ran to the corner flag and turned to greet his adoring colleagues - who were nowhere to be seen.  Cue a stricken expression and hand gestures summoning an obviously reluctant mobbing.  I did chortle at that one.  He was also central to my other favourite moment, in the semi-final against Spain.  The match itself wasn't all that good, at least to this viewer, and after 120 minutes of swapping dives it all went down to penalties.....CR7's glory moment beckoned.  Instead, two of his team mates missed, and Portugal were eliminated before he could take his nominted 5th penalty and grab the glory.  He was left standing in the centre circle, away from the rest of his team mates, gazing up at the giant screens (of course....) with an expression that said "how can they DO that to me?!?!?!"  Absolutely priceless.

I missed most of the final, between Spain and Italy (themselves a bit of a surprise package).  We went away for a weekend in the country and although we left in plenty of time for the 130km drive home we were stuck in the most appalling traffic (it took us nearly an hour to drive the 4km through one town) so missed the first 20 minutes or so (including David Silva's lovely header).  Then after 10 minutes or so of the second half, there was a massive thunderstorm and the satellite connection went so we missed the rest of the match.  Fortunately, so impressed was broadcaster TVP with the manner of Spain's 4-0 trouncing that they re-ran it in its entirety this morning so I watched and marvelled then.

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And so to the end.  No column like this is complete without an Awards list, so here are the 2012 Bobs:

Goal of the Tournament.
Plenty of candidates here.  Andy Carroll's header was a classic example of the centre forward's art that I thought had been lost forever.  Jordi Alba's goal in the Final was magnificent - his prefectly timed run onto Xavi's slide rule pass an example of how football should be played.  Andrei Shevchenko's header against Sweden was exquisite too - the movement he made to lose his marker by a yard was perfection.   But my favourite, for what it meant to this country on what could have been a dark day, was Poland captain Kuba Blaszczikowski's 30 metre howitzer (with his weaker left foot too!) against Russia on that riot-torn day.  Simply brilliant - it gave a nation (ultimately unfulfilled) hope and elegantly stuck two figures up at the Old Enemy.

Best goalkeeper.
In the end it came down to a choice between two.  Joe Hart did well enough, but had a few flappy moments.  Petr Cech did ok but made one scoolboy error that cost his team a crucial goal against Greece (who went through at the Czech Republic's expense).  Hugo Lloris of France and Maartin Stekkelenburg of Holland never lived up to their advance billing.  So for me the choice was between Iker Casillas, Spain's record breaking captain, and Gigi Buffon, Italy's Elder Statesman.   For all Saint Iker's brilliance, and lifting a trophy for a record breaking third tournament in row (2 Euros and 1 World Cup, to paraphrase the old English chant), Buffon shades it for me.  Written off as past it a couple of years ago, with a dodgy back and dodgier haicut, he still made the saves that matter - the brilliant one handed claw back from Glen Johnson that arguably won Italy the match against England, the tip over against Germany from Ozil's free kick that gained an unexpected place in the Final, were both top drawer goalkeeping.  Plus he always has a smile on his face, even after their trouncing yesterday.

Best Team.
Spain - who else is there?  Like 'em or loathe 'em, there is not a better team around.  Tiki-taka drives me mad - 800-odd passes to grind out a 1-0 win against someone like Denmark is not my favoured game. and the antics of certain players, throwing themselves to ground at the merest hint of a challenge is anti-football.  But they get results and when they put their mind to it nobody can live with them....just ask Italy.

Biggest Muppet.
Again, a few contenders here.  Wayne Rooney, for instance - hailed as the Returning Hero before the Ukraine group match, he managed a goal from about six inches my four year old daughter could have put away.  It was his only contribution in that match or the Quarter Final against Italy.  Cristiano Ronaldo because of who he is and his antics - diving is cheating, CR.  And just because you're captain it doesn't mean you have to take every free kick and corner - passing as allowed, you know.  Cesc Fabregas - largely for the same reasons as CR7, except for the captaincy bit.  I got fed up with his throwing himself around and whining - he was the only player to complain about a pitch - the one in Gdansk was "a disgrace" apparently, "we shouldn't have to play on this".  Funny he didn't make the same complaint a week later after stonking Ireland on the same surface.   But the winner is Arsenal and Poland's finest, Wojciech Szczesny.  Expected to be one of the stars of the tournament, he lasted less than an hour before charging, panic stricken, from his goal-line to challenge an approaching Greek - feet first and in the penalty area is NOT the way to do it.  Penalty to Greece and a red card that cost his country a crucial win and ended his participation in the tournament.

Best fans.
Only one contender here - the Irish, as usual.  Win, lose or draw (mostly lose) they are the same - good time boys out for some craic, a sing-song and a party  This year they excelled themselves at all three.  Most of them based themselves in the lovely old city of Torun, roughly half way between the group's venues of Poznan and Gdansk, and birth place of one of modern astronomy's founding fathers, Nicholas Copernicus.  Here, they endeared themselves to the locals by loudly cheering on Poland in their group matches, even trying to master some of the almost incomprehensible chants.  Groups of them also made hospital visits to children's wards dispensing gifts and bonhomie in equal measure.  Others went to schools and spoke to English students about their country, football, anything to help teach them our language.  Another group visited the local prison where they organised and competed against the inmates in a table football competition.  Ireland we salute you!

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So that's it.  Roll on Euro 2016.  In France apparently.