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The Luck of the Draw

Paul Armstrong | 18:35 UK time, Tuesday, 22 January 2008

One of the strangest aspects of this job is the extent to which you're in the hands of fate. When Setanta, some weeks ago, opted for last Saturday's Newcastle v Bolton fixture as their live evening game, they would have seen it as a moderately interesting Premier League occasion which they could sell as 'struggling Big Sam takes on his former club'.

By the time it came round, everything had changed and the biblical analogies had reached ludicrous proportions. Setanta were, presumably, able to sell subscriptions in Tyneside and beyond to those who were suddenly sucked into the hype and/or locked out of the game.

Much the same can also happen in the non-commercial world. I remember in the wake of our losing the Premier League highlights rights in 2000, it was announced that, as well as the FA contract, we'd bought a couple of England away qualifiers and Liverpool in the UEFA Cup.

At the time, we saw that as scant consolation, but by the time we'd delivered Liverpool 5 Alaves 4 and Germany 1 England 5 live to enormous audiences in 2001, everything looked different

We were nominated for awards, and feted by the powers-that-be largely because we'd had the good luck to cover two once-in-a-lifetime occasions in four months.

Then there was the recent FA Cup fourth round draw. Whichever way you looked at it, it didn't seem like a classic at the time. As I've mentioned before, our ideal formula until the later stages is a Premier League club visiting lower league opposition, as at Burnley and Stoke in the last round. This draw only produced two such ties: Sheffield United v Man City or West Ham, which Sky picked for live transmission, and Mansfield v Middlesbrough which we're showing live this Saturday lunchtime.

That apart, there were more "ors" than in the Boat Race, and, as I said about the last round, decisions have to be made before the replays.

There was only one other tie with a Premier League side potentially away to a smaller club: we could have gambled that Fulham would win their replay at Bristol Rovers to face another tricky away trip to Barnet or Swindon, but we would then have ended up with Barnet v Bristol Rovers. With due respect to both clubs that, as a live game, would not have attracted major national interest.

Another tie which is now rightly keenly anticipated for its Cup romance is Liverpool v non-league Havant and Waterlooville; but again, given that Swansea had hit the woodwork three times in the first game, not many outside Hampshire saw Havant's replay win coming - and Luton could have won at Liverpool, in which case the live game would have been an all-League One affair between Luton and Swansea.

Another difficult variable is the BBC's preferred first-choice kick-off time of Saturday teatime. BBC ONE is the BBC's prime channel and Saturday night is traditionally the evening of mainstream family entertainment, so a football match in that slot is expected to have a modicum of mass appeal. Aston Villa v Manchester United in the last round never took off as a spectacle but still delivered a huge peak audience of nine million.

Gareth Bale, Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Giggs (Manchester United)

As some of you have pointed out, Manchester United have featured in that slot on a number of occasions in recent years. There are three main reasons for this: 1) they generally play great football and attract a huge support and quite a lot of antipathy, so always draw a big audience; 2) they have tended to go on long Cup runs in which they draw other leading teams; and 3) Greater Manchester Police will usually allow a Saturday evening kick-off at Old Trafford.

This last factor is significant. The Metropolitan Police, with several fixtures and sets of visiting fans to monitor - as well as the other responsibilities which go with policing a capital city - have not been keen on Saturday evening games in the past. Hence Arsenal v Stoke or Newcastle - which, to be fair, looked like a decent, but not outstanding tie pre-Keegan - was probably a non-starter in that slot.

Manchester United v Spurs or Reading was an option, but in the end the decision was taken to follow the Cup holders Chelsea to a tricky tie at Steve Bruce's Wigan. As we are at Field Mill, Mansfield, Match of the Day will be visiting the JJB for the first time ever for a live game.

With Wigan v Chelsea chosen, and Sky having picked Sheffield United, the BBC opted for the Mansfield game and Manchester United v Spurs. The latter may not be a very adventurous choice, but it should be a pretty good tie for the committed and neutral alike, particularly given Tottenham's extraordinary exploits in the Carling Cup this week.

As events have transpired, we could have made a good case, in this round at least, for picking all three of our ties from those involving the 'Big Four' of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool.

From past experience, that would also have maximised ratings, but we're a non-commercial public service broadcaster, so we try to strike a balance between giving most licence-payers what they want most of the time and reflecting the spirit of the competition.

It's easier to achieve that when the draw is kinder. And for those who wish we'd picked the games at Anfield and the Emirates, or indeed Portsmouth v Plymouth which appealed to several respondents to my last blog, they will all be featured in our highlights show on Saturday night, repeated on Sunday morning.

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