NEVER mind football coming home. Football – as we know it, love it and need it – is coming back.

This wasn’t an occasion that will determine whether England will win the European Championships this summer. It was the next step towards normality, though.

Wembley was nowhere near capacity, but glasses have to be more than half full after an event that was as significant off the park as it was on it for supporters across the United Kingdom. On Monday, Scotland’s national stadium can follow England’s lead as fans return to Hampden.

Given the restrictions that are still in place, that emotional moment for the Tartan Army won’t quite be everything that they had dreamt of for 23 years. If they can mark it like the Auld Enemy did and earn an opening victory in Group D, then the negatives of the situation will be enveloped by a wave of pride and of optimism.

The first trait was certainly evident in Gareth Southgate’s side here as major international football returned to Wembley. As for the second? Well, that will be deliberated in the coming days as the fall-out from this narrow win morphs into the preparations ahead of the visit of Steve Clarke and his players at the end of the week.

The Croatians that made the trip to London were outnumbered and ultimately deflated. It was England that had the reasons to be cheerful here, courtesy of Raheem Sterling’s strike that saw Southgate’s side get off to a winning start in the section.

This tournament and these fixtures have been a long time coming and the build-up would begin hours before a ball was kicked. As the fans slowly filtered in, the atmosphere began to steadily rise before the crescendo as England got the action underway.

There was paperwork to be completed before supporters even set off on the journey here but the 22,500 that had the golden tickets wouldn’t have minded that. A year after they should have taken their seats, they were finally here and England expected once again.

Time will tell if Southgate’s side can live up to that billing. The ‘arrogance’ of their supporters and sections of their Press had been addressed by Luka Modric, the Croatian captain, at his pre-match media conference and it was on the park where England had to do their talking.

So much of the precursor to this tournament has been spent discussing the gesture of taking a knee and the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate will no doubt surface once again ahead of Scotland’s trip here.

The sporadic outbreaks of booing were drowned out by cheers and applause as Southgate and his players knelt in the seconds before kick-off. Once they rose to their feet again, a visceral roar erupted around Wembley and England were off and running.

They would ride that wave of enthusiasm and emotion throughout the opening stages. This famous arena may only have been a quarter full, but the sight and sound of supporters was to be cherished and Southgate’s side fed off that buzz.

England couldn’t capitalise on it, though. When the game was frenetic and played at their tempo, they looked dangerous as Sterling, Mason Mount and Phil Foden – who struck the post with a curling effort five minutes in – attempted to unlock a Croatian defence that was without the injured Borna Barisic.

That effort from Foden, as he shifted the ball to his left and had keeper Dominik Livaković beaten before seeing his effort come back off the woodwork, was as close as England would come in the first half.

Livaković was perhaps fortunate that nobody in white would convert after he parried a Kalvin Phillips volley and a couple of half chances, including a free-kick from Kieran Trippier, came to nothing.

The selection of Trippier ahead of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell was Southgate’s biggest call and the Chelsea man would not even make the bench. There was no place, either, for Jadon Sancho and questions over England’s full-back positions and options will persist.

For all the attacking verve that England clearly have, there are doubts over their defensive resolve. At this level, they may not be streetwise enough to go all the way and Croatia threatened to expose their deficiencies when the pace dropped and Modric began to orchestrate proceedings with the coolest head in the sweltering Wembley heat.

The opening exchanges of the second half mirrored most of the first period. Soon, the game had the spark that it needed and England had their lead.

Phillips had been a dominant presence for England and it was the Leeds United midfielder that set Sterling through with only Livaković to beat. He did just that and the decibel levels hit new heights as a celebratory roar reverberated around Wembley.

Ante Rebic should have cancelled out England’s lead as he pulled a tame effort wide from inside the area, while Mount almost doubled it as his free-kick whistled over the bar.

The remaining minutes should have been a test of England’s mettle, a chance to discover if they had the mentality and ability to emerge victorious under pressure. Croatia were hardly piling it on, however, and they were surprisingly lackadaisical as the clock ticked down.

History was made as Jude Bellingham – at 17 years and 349 days – became the youngest player to play at these Championships. It will surely be the first appearance of many.

The number that England make this summer will be discovered in due course. This victory was neither a statement of intent nor a reason to write them off and it will not live long in the memory.

Those that witnessed it will savour it and remember it for unique reasons, however. Finally, football had come home for England.