Tuesday, 17 January 2017
First viewed : Uncertain
It's highly likely I caught some of BBC1's midweek sports magazine before the autumn of 1982 but this is when I became a regular viewer as they began following the progress of Britain's newest heavyweight hopeful Frank Bruno.
Sportsnight began in 1968 as Sportsnight with Coleman , the latter part of the name being dropped in 1972 when the conceited commentator gave way to Tony Gubba as main host. Although the programme covered most sports, primacy was nearly always given to football, mainly highlights from FA Cup replays , League Cup matches and European ties . It also ran with the football season, taking a break in the summer months each year.
Harry Carpenter took over from Gubba in 1975 ensuring that his own cherished sport of boxing got an increased share of the action despite a growing medical opposition to the sport. You couldn't help wondering when listening to Harry's commentary what he himself would be like in a fight. You suspected not very good from the look of him.
Bruno had only just turned professional in 1982 but was tipped for the top and was carefully managed. Bruno had a formidable physique and a lethal punch but was very endearing in person. Most of his early interviews with Carpenter lasted considerably longer than the "fight" he'd just been in as a succession of obvious inadequates were dispatched, usually in the first round. At the same time , the best British contender of the previous decade, Joe Bugner, was making a comeback . Bugner , never popular for his defensive style, less than total commitment and controversial defeat of national treasure Henry Cooper, was now an Australian citizen and there was a lot of speculation about when the two would meet. Before that eventually happened in 1987 , Frank had suffered two potentially derailing defeats against James "Bonecrusher" Smith and Tim Witherspoon in his first world title shot .
The Bugner match wasn't shown live on terrestrial TV. Characteristically, Bugner hadn't bothered to slim down to his fighting weight and Frank saw him off with a technical knock out in the eighth round. Two years later he was fighting the ferocious Mike Tyson ( the two men were friends outside the ring ) and after being too slow to follow up a dangerous left hook in the first round, took a heavy battering which was stopped in Round Five.
I think most people realised at that point that Frank wasn't going to reach the top of the profession but he did eventually snatch the WBC heavyweight title in 1995 with a points victory over Oliver McCall. He held it for barely six months before another mauling from Tyson in his first defence. He retired on medical advice immediately afterwards. By that time Carpenter had already hung up on the microphone.
As regards the football, it captured a number of memorable games. There was the League Cup tie between Everton and Oxford with the latter poised to win the tie and most likely put Howard Kendall out of a job before a suicidal back pass from the hapless Kevin Brock allowed Everton to equalise and kick started their mid-eighties glory years. Sportsnight also captured the 1985 Kenilworth Road Riot when Millwall supporters, their ranks swelled by thugs from Chelsea and West Ham it must be said, went berserk in their FA Cup defeat at Luton and wrecked the stadium , sparking the thankfully short-lived vogue for banning away supporters. Of the European matches I particularly enjoyed Red Star Belgrade's demolition of Rangers just before the Yugoslav wars destroyed the team.
And then of course Sportsnight were at Selhurst Park ten years later to capture the most infamous non-fatal football incident of all when a certain sent-off French striker decided to treat the crowd ( one or two of them being non-consenting, if not entirely blameless , participants ) to an impromptu kung fu demonstration as he left the pitch . This handed Blackburn Rovers what will almost certainly be their only Premier League title in my lifetime.
That was pretty much the programme's last big coup. The advent of live Champions League matches meant the loss of much of its raison d'etre and the brand was finally put to bed in 1997.