That phrase normally means that the position is generally thought to be an impossible job. A job guaranteed to end in failure. Thirty years ago, the managers position at Manchester United was thought to be the biggest poison chalice in the country, when David Sexton was sacked they couldn’t get their first choice (Laurie McMenemy) but wound up with West Brom's Ron Atkinson instead. In the light of the sacking of David Moyes, it may well be again.
The Moyes era is already being painted as the reign of someone out of their depth, who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. More than a cursory look at events will see that Moyes failures can be traced to the failure to prepare properly during last summers transfer window. Ferguson’s side from last season while good enough to win the English Championship was still in need of surgery. They have been arguably missing a dominant midfielder since Keane, while they haven’t replaced Paul Scholes either. That’s before we get to the poor form shown by Vidic & Ferdinand this season, while the replacements for those two (Jones, Evans & Smalling) haven’t exactly set the heather on fire.
That’s not to say that Moyes hasn’t made mistakes. His biggest was getting rid of Ferguson’s backroom staff – keeping Meulenstein & Phelan would have made the transition period easier. Yet there is a logic to Moyes actions here. Does the new man want so many of his predecessor’s men still around, especially with the old man “upstairs”?
The Radio 5 Live football commentator Mike Ingham did make the point in asking what Moyes task was? Was it a long term rebuilding job (one which Moyes has been good at while at Everton) and if so why has he been sawn off? Their Chief Executive Ed Woodward did make the point that Moyes got the job because they were looking for someone for the long term and not “a gun for hire”, so what has changed? If it was the old perennial of “losing the dressing room”, again it comes back to the less than smooth transition period, which resulted in no momentum from the summer. Unsurprisingly, Roy Keane pulled no punches in fingering the players, Moyes coaching staff and the directors in not supporting Moyes.
So who next for the poison chalice then? The bookies favourite is the current Netherlands manager Louis Van Gaal. He has the experience, reshaping Ajax to the extent that they won the UEFA Cup (in 1992) and the European Cup (in 1995), reshaping the Barcelona team, laying the foundations that eventually led to Guardiola’s double European Cup winning sides. Van Gaal also laid the foundations for Guardiola at Bayern Munich, leading them to the European Cup final in 2010 before making way for Jupp Heynkes. He has the qualifications, but he is a “gun for hire”.
Others in the race include the Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, the current Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and his opponent across Madrid Diego Simeone. Note that none of the names mentioned would be long term appointments or are any of the up and coming managers of the British game. Has the perceived failure of Moyes meant that Manchester United have changed their policy and are now appointing “guns for hire”?
When Manchester United decided to sack Ron Atkinson in November 1986, they had a plan who they wanted as his replacement as they had already sounded out the Aberdeen Manager Alex Ferguson. Today it is not apparent that there is a plan. They may have sounded out people as far back as last month, but there does not look as if there is a clear succession plan. Had Ferguson been sacked in 1990, the seeds had already been sown for Manchester United’s future success. Moyes sacking deprives him of the opportunity to even plant the seeds.