Every match is a public referendum for a football manager but when England triumphed in their opening game of the European Championships at Wembley, it felt as if Gareth Southgate had just won a particularly important vote.
There were plenty of critics lying in wait for Southgate but this victory over Croatia deprived them of their constituency.
The freighted debate about England players taking the knee before the game had raised the stakes for the England boss because he had backed his players so emphatically in their desire to continue the protest.
Gareth Southgate had huge calls to make ahead of England’s opener but brought in the win
Those who resent the gesture resent Southgate for enabling it, too. Anything other than a victory would have placed him under immediate pressure in this tournament.
This was a victory for Southgate in more than just the result. He had stuck by Sterling when many had urged him to jettison him, perhaps for Jack Grealish. He wanted him for his pace and his movement and Sterling repaid him.
How sweet, too, that Sterling, one of those players who has suffered his share of racist abuse, should be vindicated again on the biggest stage. He was named man of the match.
And then there was Southgate’s decision to pick Kieran Trippier, a right back, at left back in preference to Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell, who did not even make the bench. That was a brave move. It made him a hostage to fortune. If England had not won the game, Southgate would have been ridiculed for that.
Southgate faced critics by sticking with Raheem Sterling but his gamble paid off
But Southgate felt Trippier offered the best option defensively in a back line that has been seen as England’s Achilles’ heel. And he was proved right. England did not leak goals against Croatia. They limited them to half chances at best. A maligned defence kept a clean sheet. That was another victory for Southgate.
He got the mood right, too. When he brought on 17-year-old Jude Bellingham in the last ten minutes, trusting him to protect England’s lead, it was another nod to his faith in youth which has built so much optimism around this England side in the build-up to this tournament. Bellingham, too, repaid him.
It was not a classic team performance but a win was all that mattered. And there were glimpses of real style and class.
England had started in a blur of brilliance that made them look like the Manchester City side that walked the Premier League last season or the Chelsea of the Champions League final. Croatia could not cope with the movement of Phil Foden and Sterling. Kalvin Phillips ran midfield. ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ was trending on Twitter.
It felt like a glimpse of what might be to come in the best of all possible worlds, an England team that played with the verve and togetherness and technical assurance of our leading club sides.
Kalvin Phillips gave a commanding performance at the heart of midfield inside Wembley
Watch out France. Watch out Belgium. Maybe this is the one. Maybe this is the dawn of a beautiful tournament. Hopes that have been destroyed so often sprung forth again.
Foden hit the post with a beautiful curler, Phillips had a shot beaten away. Modric, who does not need to be compared to Pirlo or to anyone, could barely get a kick. England hurt Croatia with their pace and made them look old and tired with their energy and their style.
It lasted for just over 20 minutes and then the pace dropped in the blistering heat. England’s old excuse: the heat. And when the pace dropped, Modric and Croatia stepped in and the Wembley crowd grew restive and apprehensive. There were early echoes here of the World Cup semi-final in Moscow three years ago, when England faded. Everyone recognised it.
That feeling grew at the start of the second half. There were boos when John Stones played the ball back to Jordan Pickford, there were groans when Mason Mount set off on a sprint down the left wing hoping for a quick release from Pickford and then flung his arms up in the air when it didn’t come. All those old tropes about Southgate being a negative manager started bubbling up.
So there was a huge explosion of relief 11 minutes after the interval when Phillips, England’s best player to that point, burst through midfield and slid a perfectly-weighted pass into the path of Sterling, who rammed it past the goalkeeper.
On the touchline, Southgate turned to the stands and punched the air. He knew he might just have seen one of the most important goals of his managerial career.
Southgate also timed it perfectly by turning to teenager Jude Bellingham, who broke records
In the last ten minutes, he turned to Bellingham to protect a precious victory. He made him his closer. At 17 years and 349 days, he also made Bellingham the youngest player to ever make an appearance at the European Championship and the youngest player to appear for England at a major tournament, overtaking Michael Owen at the 1998 World Cup, who was 18 years and 183 days old.
There has been a lot of talk about symbolism and what a uplifting symbol that was: a kid who embodies so many hopes for England’s future carrying them over the line.
On England’s opening day, Southgate got it pitch perfect.