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The Story That Never Was

Lewis Wiltshire | 16:44 UK time, Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Do you see Ball 24 or Ball 25?

It never fails to amaze me in this job that something you could not possibly have envisaged when you got up in the morning can end up completely dominating your day.

When I arrived at work this morning with a list as long as your arm of things I needed to do, I certainly didn't anticipate having to sweep aside most of them to investigate whether or not the draw for the FA Cup third round was bungled.

The first whisper that something had gone wrong with the draw came when a colleague rushed through to report a rumour that the number 25 ball had been drawn out of the bowl but the number 24 read aloud.

If true, this meant that number 24 (Manchester United) should not in fact be playing Aston Villa, ironically the game which will be shown on the BBC on 5 January. Instead, United would have been paired with Bristol City, which is the tie Middlesbrough (the real number 25) were given.

It's hard to stop the questions coming into your head at that point, even before you've begun to find out whether it's true. Will the FA change the fixtures? Will Manchester United now play Bristol City instead of Villa? How will that affect the BBC's plans? It could potentially be a huge news story.

But which ball was left in the pot?

It all rested on watching the tape back. Then watching it again. Myself and almost everyone else in our office gathered around a computer where we slowed down the footage, watched it back, froze it. Colleagues from other parts of BBC Sport joined us. We watched it again. Anyone looking in from the corridor outside would have seen a large group of journalists crowded around one monitor and assumed a major news story was developing. We thought perhaps it might be.

It looked like 25. When the name Manchester United (ball number 24) was read out, the ball which was being held up looked like a 25. But the more that we viewed it, the more it became apparent that it was a 24 - and that the angle it was shown at, the way the light shone on the ball, turned the horizontal line underneath the 4 into the bottom curve of a 5. It was a very strange trick of the camera, but enough to unleash a thousand web conspiracy theories, no doubt.

In BBC Sport Interactive we have a multimedia suite with a very big screen on the wall. We put the footage on there, and again a large group gathered in front of it. At incredibly slow speed and then frozen altogether, you could clearly see the ball number was 24.

None of this was helped by the fact the 25 ball, when it did come out shortly afterwards, was obscured. That will almost certainly increase the conspiracy theories - the suggestion will probably be that, knowing they had read out number 24 when number 25 was drawn, there was a need to obscure the 24 ball when that came out. But I've seen the footage close up, slowed down, and despite Sammy Nelson's finger over the ball, it's definitely NOT 24 when Middlesbrough's name is read out. It's 25. The draw was correct. There was no blunder.

Once we'd ruled out a mistake, we then had to decide what to do next. There was no hard news story here - "FA does not bungle Cup draw" isn't really the best line. But equally we felt there was a need to let people know the draw was sound, once the inevitable conspiracy theories began to circulate. In the end we thought we'd blog about it, since it makes for quite an interesting story anyway - the day a scare story about the FA Cup draw caused a little dose of chaos within BBC Sport's corridors.

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