The first game of a big summer tournament is one of those occasions when you look at the score line first and work backwards from there.
From that point of view, this was a perfect start for England and the scenes immediately after the final whistle pointed directly to that.
On the touchline Gareth Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland embraced as though they had just won the final. Soon after, England’s players – weary on a blisteringly hot day – gathered to wave at their families seated with a perfect view of where Raheem Sterling had scored his winning goal.
Against Croatia at Wembley, Gareth Southgate ultimately got the job done and took the points
Kieran Trippier – perhaps as surprised as the rest of us to be chosen at left-back – looked up in to the stands and puffed out his cheeks.
Kyle Walker blew kisses up to his children while Mason Mount and Declan Rice – best friends for so long – stood with arms round each other as though they had just realised the sheer scale of the adventure that now stretches out before them in this competition.
It all looked and felt a little as though a huge pressure valve had just been released and that was entirely appropriate. This victory means so much, not just in terms of the three group points but also regarding the mood of this England squad ahead of Friday’s game here against Scotland.
That was always going to be a huge fixture but already it feels different. England have a security blanket already, one that they didn’t have, for example, when they faced the Scots in game two of their Euro 96 campaign.
Childhood friends Mason Mount and Declan Rice embraced at full-time after getting the win
Twenty-five years ago England drew 1-1 with Switzerland in their first game here with a bits and pieces performance that was actually not so different to this one. As such it took Paul Gascoigne’s famous goal against Scotland in game two to ignite their tournament. Up until that moment, that game had jeopardy written all over it.
This time it need not be that way. Friday night will still be fractious and feisty and maybe not terribly pretty. At least if the Scots have their way. But the difference is that England’s tournament fuse has already been lit by Sterling’s goal and it was one that arrived with perfect timing in more ways than one.
The through ball from Kalvin Phillips – who was outstanding on the day – was timed beautifully and so was Sterling’s scurrying dart in to space.
More widely, the goal arrived at the perfect stage of the game. England had started the afternoon superbly, threatening to run a leaden Croatia team off the park with the tempo and energy of their football. Sterling and Phil Foden managed to isolate defenders as Southgate would have hoped and spaces opened on the back of that.
But as we approached the hour, the whole feeling of the game had changed.
England had been unable to maintain that aggressive opening and had started to allow Croatia to control the rhythm. Luka Modric, still Croatia’s most dangerous player at 35, was fouled twice by desperate English tackles in the early stages of the second half and that seemed indicative of the direction the game was heading.
It had all become rather slow and that was never going to suit Southgate’s players. On the side lines, his substitutes were readying. Time for Jack Grealish or Marcus Rashford perhaps.
So the goal was important in that it changed all of that. Suddenly it was Croatia who had to push and play with eagerness, to take chances. That does not come naturally to an ageing team and England saw the final 20 minutes or so of the game out without much alarm.
England now head into Friday’s clash with Scotland having taken maximum points so far
England will have to be better than this as the tournament progresses. They cannot concede possession in the middle third as easily as they did at times here. They will have to find a way to build a more reliable platform on which players such as Sterling, Mason Mount and Foden can work.
But that is for another day. England will ultimately take confidence from this, both collectively and individually.
This was a huge day for Sterling as he scored his first major tournament goal so close to where he grew up. The Manchester City player had not played an awful lot of club football before the Euros began but was bright.
Aston Villa’s Grealish was England’s stand out attacking player during their two warm up games but feasibly may reach full-time this Friday without having kicked a ball. That is how football can be at times like this. That is how suddenly things can change.
Phillips was fabulous in the heart of Southgate’s midfield while Tyrone Mings, so poor against Austria and Romania, managed to find something much better. He will play alongside John Stones again against Scotland while we await Harry Maguire’s return to proper fitness.
Tyrone Mings put in a vastly improved performance at the heart of the England defence
It was a toil in the heat at times. England will not be disappointed that their next two games take place in the evening. Equally, there will be no escaping it in Qatar’s World Cup in 18 months’ time.
But since when were opening tournament games supposed to be easy anyway? These occasions are supposed to test your mettle and this one did.
It was heartening at half-time, with the game poised, to look at the England bench and see such quality. That will doubtless become important the longer we move through this tournament.
For now England can take a breath. As supper time approached and the mowers emerged to work on a Wembley surface by now half covered by shade, the big scoreboards at either end still read England 1 Croatia 0. That is really all that mattered.