If England wins the World Cup, but the Premier League loses one of its Champions League places, has Brexit succeeded or failed? That’s the question that could define whether Brexit endures or is merely a one decade proposition, at least if Football Manager is any guide.
Two years ago, the popular football simulation made headlines after announcing they would incorporate a range of possible Brexit scenarios into their game. On 29 March 2019, players would be told what the outcome of the Brexit talks were, with major implications for how British football clubs conducted their transfer dealings. The options: an EEA-style Brexit, in which the United Kingdom maintained its membership of the single market and with it the free movement of people and the current frictionless trade with the continent, a Canada-style Brexit in which the United Kingdom leaves the single market with the concomitant repercussions for trade with the continent, and a no-deal scenario.
I have now played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for a good thirty or so years after Brexit. In both cases, I experienced what is still far and away the most likely flavour of Brexit – a Canada-style arrangement with a reduced level of market access. (The one disappointingly unrealistic note is that this all takes place with no transition in March 2019.) And in both cases, I was still at the start of my managerial career, carving out a name for myself in the lower tiers of English football, with Oxford City and FC United of Manchester respectively. (I begin my games of Football Manager unemployed and take whatever job I can get.)
What both saves have immediately in common is that for the great mass of football clubs, there appears to be no real difference between life the day before, or after, Brexit.
Oxford City mark the first full season after Brexit by achieving almost perfect equilibrium in League One – 15 victories, 16 draws and 15 losses – while FC United are promoted from League Two at the first sign of asking. It doesn’t appear as if British football is going to be all that different outside of the EU.
But the summer proves otherwise. Signing players, already nightmarishly hard at Oxford City – my wage budget is punishingly low – becomes more difficult, as I no longer have immediate and foolproof access to the European market. My usual approach in the lower leagues is to buy young technically adept players from Scotland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Ireland, and finance that by selling a player every summer. Although FC United have a more competitive salary structure, they too struggle.
But as a net exporter of players, that’s all to the good. Other, bigger clubs respond to the unreliability of the European market by being more competitive for my players, and I successfully reinvest the proceeds, winning promotion to the Championship with both clubs in 2020-21
There, again, I find the football landscape much as I’d expect it: a series of financially over-extended clubs, all a bad run away from crisis, who are desperate for players with visas. This is double-edged: Oxford City are still a selling club, so the increasing cost of players is good for me. But unfortunately, not every one of my starlets can get the big move they want. On the eve of my third season in the Premier League – 2024-25 – a £97m deal for Ollie List, a buccaneering fullback I plucked from Fulham’s academy, falls through at the last minute, leaving me unable to buy several key targets and List thoroughly disgruntled.
The only way I stop List’s bad attitude bringing down the rest of my players is to bust open my wage structure to give him an eyewatering salary increase. He repays me by being the lynchpin of a defence that wins nine titles over the next decade, but he is symptomatic of a wider problem: I can’t sell on my players and I can’t easily buy replacements, so the only way to keep the show on the road is to pay higher salaries.
That dynamic seems to be playing itself out at other clubs up and down English football. My noisy neighbours, Oxford United, declare bankruptcy and are relegated three years in succession. As I celebrate Oxford City’s Premier League win in 2025-6, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Liverpool FC and Leeds United all find themselves in some kind of financial jeopardy, which is a good opportunity for me to buy some good players at a knockdown price, but again, on eyewatering wages. FC United’s first league title in 2024-5 similarly comes against a backdrop of clubs declaring bankruptcy.
To compensate for the lack of access to the European market, I turn my eyes further afield, signing players from Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. I still face heavy visa restrictions, of course, and my Premier League rivals are in the same game. Ultimately, Brexit is good for increasing trade outside of Europe – but the increase in trade is not large enough to compensate for the loss of easy access to the European market.
While I am doing well myself in European competition, most English clubs are not. In a moment that triggers national soul-searching, the damage to our UEFA coefficient means that the Premier League loses one of its four Champions League places in 2032-33 in both saves with France the beneficiary in Football Manager 2017 and Italy the benefactors in Football Manager 2018. But in both cases, the English football team enjoys major success at the following international tournament (not, I should make clear, as a result of my involvement: I consider international football to be beneath me).
In both cases, the post-Brexit future is roughly in line with the bulk of economic forecasts: wages up, but prices up too. Trade with the world outside the EU up, but not by enough to compensate for the loss of trade with the continent. And crucially, underperformance relative to the rest of Europe.
So if Football Manager is any guide, expect Brexit to be a modest failure: and Axel Tuanzebe, the Manchester United centreback, to be a storming success.