A night to forget for a clapped out old sport

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The Independent Online
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth among armchair sports fans about the BBC's decision to "axe" Sportsnight (BBC1). In fact the image of execution, a tabloid standby for any institutional termination, is much too violent. When the end comes for Sportsnight - probably early next summer - it will be in the manner of a kindly nurse switching off a life-support system.

The old chap has been blipping along for years on the verge of extinction, but his diet has become increasingly thin, and in recent months the only stuff he has been able to keep down has been pre-chewed chunks of football, a thin, sleep-inducing soup of snooker and the odd gummy rusk of a moderate boxing promotion.

Last Wednesday evening was sadly typical. Des Lynam announced in tones of weary disbelief that we were off to be ringside at Northbridge Leisure Centre, Halifax, for a Commonwealth super-middlewight title bout between our own Henry Wharton and an Australian named Rick Thornberry.

This was confirmation that Sportsnight is scraping the bottom of a very deep, dark barrel. There are 272 generally recognised world boxing titles, and any sports programme that can't get its hands on one of them is woefully short of both cash and credibility.

Wharton, a solid, workmanlike type, has had two cracks at a world crown, and hopes to get another go. His opponent's only chance of getting his hands on a title would be to mug a Marquis.

Thornberry, whose fixed expression of anxious surprise suggested that no-one had told him the other guy would be trying to hit him, is the son of a former contender who went by the name of Trevor "The Ice Man" Thornberry. Thornberry Jnr seemed determined to earn the nickname of "The Nice Man" as he repeatedly attempted to hug his opponent into submission.

Exhausted by his ceaseless displays of affection, Thornberry declined to rise from his stool at the start of the sixth, and Sportsnight could get on with some action. Action, that is, from the football shown live on Sky on Sunday. Newcastle's goals against Manchester United, and if you hadn't already seen them several times you must be a hermit with an aversion to paying the electricity bill for your cave.

Next up was a bit of banter between Des and Vinnie Jones, consisting mainly of praise on Lynam's part for Wimbledon's football (sic transit gorier mundi) and plugs on Jones's part for his forthcoming movie debut, in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which seems likely to owe a lot more to Pulp Fiction than Bambi. Jones wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the initials OP, but their significance was never explained. Once they would have stood for Objectionable Psychopath: next year they might signify Oscar Possibility.

After Vinnie there was some soporific snooker, but it didn't really matter. Any viewers still conscious would have switched over to the Coca-Cola Cup highlights on ITV.

One of the BBC's problems when Sportsnight finally expires will be what to do with Des, who they have reportedly secured from Sky's blandishments with a costly contract. Whatever role he does select, he is unlikely to return to How Do They Do That? (BBC1), the anodyne show-and-tell series that he briefly anchored.

Last week's programme featured two sporting segments. A Blue-Peter level report on the Williams Grand Prix team revealed only two items of interest. One was the drinks pump that supplies liquids to the driver. If it sticks in the "on" position, Damon Hill said, "I'll drown." The other was what would happen to the ordinary fan given a chance to drive Hill's car. G- forces are the problem, apparently. "First of all you would feel excited and exhilarated," Hill said. "Then, after two laps, your head would fall off." Drowning and decapitation: dangerous game, motor racing.

The second chunk of sport gave David Elleray a chance to reveal some secrets about Premiership refereeing. And, ignoring the programme's brief to stick to the blindingly obvious, he did. Firstly, refs like to get their retaliation in early "...to destroy the first 10 minutes to make sure the remaining 80 minutes are a good game of football."

Then there is the fascinating business of "selling" decisions. This depends, Elleray said, "on your body language and the way you signal and the way you blow the whistle. If you blow the whistle, look confident. You arm comes out, it's straight, your chest is slightly out, and your whole body looks strong and positive, then people will believe that you're confident. In a way referees are almost conmen. A lot of the time we are trying to con people into thinking that we are very clear in what we've given when sometimes we're really not sure." If you thought that the players were the only play-actors on the field, you were wrong.

The baseball World Series (Sky) has been great television, but the all- -night transmissions play havoc with things like work, friends and family. Tough call? Not really.

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