Brian McDermott's name was added to an illustrious list this week. Joining the likes of Jose Mourinho, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and Mark Hughes, he became the latest Premier League manager to be sacked prior to a game against Manchester United. And if history is anything to go by, rudderless Reading should be a touch apprehensive ahead of their visit to Old Trafford this weekend.
Results have not been kind to clubs who have dispensed with bosses prior to a fixture with the Red Devils: on the last six occasions it has happened, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have notched up six wins, scoring 17 goals and conceding just two. Trying to break that hoodoo – and succeed where the likes of Avram Grant, Nigel Pearson and Ricky Sbragia have failed – is Reading's academy chief, Eamonn Dolan. The odds are certainly stacked against the Irishman, whose playing career was cut short when he developed testicular cancer at the age of 26, but despite his last managerial position coming in the Conference at Exeter, Dolan is determined to make his mark at Old Trafford.
"You can quit, you can lie down, or you can get up and do something positive to make a statement," the Royals' caretaker boss said ahead of the game. "And the most positive statement we can make is by getting a result at Old Trafford on Saturday. The sun is shining and I'm passionate about football. I'm passionate on the touchline because it's football. I've got over cancer – that's the real thing which is great. There is a perspective, but the main perspective is getting that result on Saturday."
With an away day at Emirates Stadium following this Saturday's trip north to United, Reading are in real danger of being cut adrift at the bottom of the table. Although many have questioned the timing of McDermott's sacking, the facts show that Reading have fewer points at this stage of the season (23) than in either of their two Premier League campaigns, while their current run of four defeats in a row is the worst of any team in the division at present.
However, pulling the managerial trigger in March has previously proved futile for Premier League clubs struggling in the relegation zone. Sheffield Wednesday sacked Danny Wilson in March of 2000, Sunderland have wielded the axe twice in the month – with Howard Wilkinson in 2003 and Mick McCarthy in 2006 – and Hull City were the last to do it in 2010 when Phil Brown was sent packing. The common denominator between the four clubs: all were relegated anyway. Now Reading must beware the Ides of March, or risk becoming the fifth club to be condemned to the same fate.
While there is never really a good time to play Manchester United, the Premier League leaders looked jaded against Chelsea, seemingly still suffering from a physical and emotional hangover from their Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid. Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez both marked their returns to the starting line-up with a goal, but United tired badly in the second half and were lucky in the end to escape from the FA Cup quarter-final with a replay. Ferguson may be tempted to shake things up, with Michael Carrick particularly deserving of a rest after playing a number of draining games in succession of late. Anderson and Antonio Valencia both featured against Reading when the sides did battle in the cup last month and may be hopeful of involvement again from the start, though second-guessing Ferguson's line up has become a near impossible task for even the most sage of soothsayers.
A repeat of the seven-goal thriller that Ferguson's men won at the Madejski Stadium in December would be a welcome spectacle for the neutral but with United unbeaten in the Premier League since November and having not conceded a league goal in their past four matches, Dolan's debut will be judged a success simply if Reading avoid humiliation in Manchester.
Manchester United player to watch: Danny Welbeck. With Sir Alex Ferguson likely to throw caution to the wind against struggling Reading, Welbeck may be called upon to form a three-pronged frontline with Rooney and Van Persie. The England forward put in a pair of superb displays against Real Madrid and, while his role then was to keep Xabi Alonso quiet, the Royals' visit could see his pace and direct running unleashed as he desperately tries to add to a disappointing goal tally.
Reading player to watch: Jobi McAnuff. Perhaps not the most consistent player in blue and white this season, McAnuff has nonetheless proved a valuable creative weapon for Reading at times and has offered five assists so far 2012-13. The former West Ham midfielder is the Royals' captain and has a tendency to raise his game when the big teams roll into town, demonstrating as much when scoring against United in the FA Cup last month to set up a nervy finale at Old Trafford.
Key Battle: Robin Van Persie v Adrian Mariappa. The phrase 'goal drought' has been utterly incompatible with Robin van Persie over the past few seasons, but the Dutchman's failure to score in his last six games means he is currently enduring his leanest spell since December 2010. Van Persie's last strike came against Everton at the beginning of February and he will be champing at the bit to get back on the scoresheet, particularly after his failure to find a way through in two Champions League legs against Real Madrid. Jamaica international Adrian Mariappa will be the man tasked with shackling United's No. 20 - the centre-back has been one of the few Royals players to show he's not out of his depth in the Premier League this season, but he will be in for a busy evening.
Trivia: Manchester United and Reading are two of only five teams currently in the Premier League to have never had a manager from outside of the British Isles. The others are Norwich, Sunderland and Everton.
Stats: Reading boast the fourth best chance-conversion rate in the Premier League at 15.2%. Only Arsenal (16.7%), Chelsea (17.5%) and Saturday's opponents Manchester United (21%) have better.
Odds: Reading are huge outsiders at 19.00 with bet365, while Manchester United are 1.16 and the draw is 8.50. Robin van Persie can be backed to return to scoring ways with a bang – a hat-trick for the Dutchman is priced at 7.50.
Prediction: A breeze for United, and a baptism of fire for Reading's caretaker boss Eamonn Dolan.