WHATEVER else happens over the course of the next month, Gareth Southgate’s side have already produced a piece of footballing history. At the tenth time of asking, England have finally won their first match at a European Championships. Football’s coming home? It’s a bit early for that, but at least England’s players have proved they are capable of making home advantage count.

Raheem Sterling’s second-half strike sparked jubilant scenes at Wembley, which were repeated at full time as Three Lions rang around the stadium. With supporters back singing in the sunshine, this felt like a seminal moment. Hopefully, it is the start of something special.

There will be stiffer tests to come, although given Croatia’s performance at the last World Cup, when they beat England in the last four before losing to France in the final, yesterday’s victory remains a hugely-notable success. Even at Euro 96, Terry Venables’ England side failed to get off to a winning start.

Southgate’s current crop of players merited yesterday’s win, even if they were not quite able to sustain the lightning-fast start that saw Phil Foden strike the post in just the sixth minute. Croatia just about withstood England’s early whirlwind, and were easing themselves back into the game when Sterling struck 12 minutes into the second half, sweeping home a first-time finish after Kalvin Phillips’ through ball unlocked the Croatian defence.

Phillips was England’s standout performer all game, shutting down Croatia’s playmakers in a manner that proved beyond Southgate’s side in Russia, and driving England forward with some powerful running and astute passing. This has been flagged up as a breakthrough tournament for a number of England’s players – perhaps it will be the Leeds-born 25-year-old who emerges as a surprise star.

He certainly justified his inclusion ahead of Jordan Henderson yesterday, and on an afternoon when things pretty much went to plan throughout, Southgate got his key calls right. His team selection divided opinion, with Sterling selected in attack ahead of Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho. The Manchester City forward didn’t always make the right decision in the final third – a familiar failing – but his willingness to drive beyond Harry Kane to make incursions into the Croatian box ultimately proved crucial. His direct running alone makes him a key part of this England team.

Southgate’s other big calls came in the back four, with Tyrone Mings selected to partner John Stones in the absence of the injured Harry Maguire, and Kieran Trippier getting the nod at left-back ahead of Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell.

Mings was sensational, outperforming the more experienced Stones as he won a succession of crucial headers. Like Phillips, this was something of a coming-of-age performance for the Aston Villa man.

Trippier was solid enough at left-back, although it will be interesting to see if Southgate keeps him in the same role against Scotland and Czech Republic, when a more attacking approach might be needed in the full-back positions. With Kyle Walker struggling with his distribution yesterday, perhaps Trippier will be moved back to right-back on Friday night.

England’s opening ten minutes yesterday afternoon were their best of the game. Unlike in a number of previous tournaments, where England teams had been sluggish and hesitant in the early stages of their opening fixture, Southgate’s side flew out of the traps after some hearty cheering had drowned out a smattering of boos as the players took the knee. The only disappointment was that neither of England’s chances in the opening quarter-of-an-hour was converted.

The first came after just six minutes, and saw Sterling break into space from a quick throw-in. The forward fed his Manchester City team-mate, Phil Foden, on the edge of the 18-yard box, and after cutting inside onto his left foot, Foden curled a fine low strike against the base of the left-hand post. It was almost a dream start for the 21-year-old, whose bleached-blonde look evokes inevitable memories of Paul Gascoigne at Euro 96.

With Sterling’s forward bursts unsettling the Croatian defence, even if the desired end product was not always there, and with Phillips starting strongly as he broke forward from the heart of midfield, leaving Declan Rice behind him to protect the back four, England threatened again three minutes later.

Trippier’s corner was only cleared to Phillips, and from his position 20 yards out, the Leeds midfielder drilled in a crisp low strike that Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic did well to parry to safety.

With Sterling hitting a dipping half-volley that sailed over the crossbar midway through the first half, England were much the better side in the opening quarter of the game, but as time ticked on, so Croatia’s midfielders gradually began to get a grip on the contest.

Zlatko Dilic’s side featured six players who started the 2018 World Cup final, and with Luka Modric pulling the strings, as he had in Croatia’s semi-final win over England in Russia, the visitors to Wembley successfully steadied the ship and began to become increasingly threatening themselves.

Their best first-half opportunity came to nothing when an unmarked Ivan Perisic fired over after Sime Vrsaljko’s cross evaded the England defence, but they might well have caused Jordan Pickford a few more problems had Mings not made three crucial clearances from inside his own 18-yard box in the closing minutes of the first half. Mings got the nod ahead of Conor Coady and Ben White to replace the injured Harry Maguire, and did not let his nation down.

Modric confirmed Croatia’s growing confidence as he fired a long-range shot straight at Pickford at the start of the second half, but England finally got the breakthrough their enduring dominance merited shortly before the hour mark.

The irrepressible Phillips was the architect of the goal, driving down Croatia's inside-right channel before threading an inch-perfect through ball beyond the defence that enabled Sterling to break into the area.

Perhaps fortuitously, the Manchester City forward did not have long to think about what was happening, and with a covering defender and the Croatian goalkeeper closing in, he swept home a first-time finish that was celebrated raucously by the 22,000-strong crowd.

Sterling fired over with 16 minutes left when he had more time to pick his spot, and while Mason Mount also curled a late free-kick just over the crossbar, the final half-an-hour became in an exercise in astute game-management. For once, England were not found wanting.

With Mings continuing to impress, the hosts successfully kept Croatia at arm’s length, shutting down Luka Modric’s opportunities to thread balls into the penalty area and winning everything that was delivered towards the six-yard line.

Marcelo Brozovic shot wide after the ball dropped invitingly inside the area, but that was a rare moment of alarm in an otherwise very professional England win.