After the leave of enforced absence, after that failed heist masquerading as a Super League, after a year and counting of isolation and anxiety. Well, here comes everyone.

With 34 minutes gone at Wembley there was a moment of authentic match-going beauty. João Cancelo played a wondrous fizzed, flat, crossfield pass to Riyad Mahrez. He took the ball with a super-soft touch, jinked inside – as he must always jink inside – then spanked a thrilling shot back on the same zigzagging angle just past the far post.

In the Manchester City seats there was a gurgle at the pass, a ripple of automatic applause, then a gasp and a howl as the ball flew wide. And there it was: that shared energy, those moments where you really do just forget everything else and speak and shout and sigh in the same shared voice.

There was a nice moment at the end, too, as the pieces of cardboard podium were hauled across the Wembley turf for the trophy-lift to celebrate City’s dominant 1-0 win. The players came across to the supporters and waved and clapped and laughed. Sergio Agüero, a little off to one side, waved back to a chant of his name. Pep Guardiola pumped both arms above his head, skinny legs pounding the turf.

It didn’t take a seer to predict this as the closing scene of this Carabao Cup final, just as winning a trophy does tend to add a layer of heartwarming schmaltz. But there was a genuine heat here, an exchange of something, that everyone, frankly, has missed.

Those moments will remain the enduring image of a day when supporters – noisy, awkward, difficult, loyal, noisy, dissenting humans – returned to a sport that has been pulled in some genuinely strange directions in their absence.

From an hour before kick-off the red plastic seats were dotted with people blinking and grinning at each other as the players warmed up in the April sun, boggling at those half-remembered shadows and shapes.

Huge green plastic promotional things were draped over the pitch by dear old Carabao, unlikely keepers of the flame of Proper Football.

The Wembley PA burbled something pointed about “THE 92 TEAMS who have taken part” (yes Mr Pérez, count ’em). An NHS choir sang the national anthem on the big screens and everyone started to melt a little more. And this was already the best Carabao Cup final of all the Carabao Cup finals.

Harry Kane had a difficult time as Spurs lost out to Manchester City at Wembley.
Harry Kane had a difficult time as Spurs lost out to Manchester City at Wembley. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

And yet, the game itself was also a reminder of how we got here. It would be wrong to say this was never a contest. It was a contest for about 10 minutes after half-time. By the end City had made twice as many passes as Tottenham and had 21 shots at goal to two. For long periods this was an entirely one‑sided spectacle, Harry Kane versus a team that has everything except a Harry Kane.

It is in everyone’s interest not to pretend the present works perfectly. At Wembley the No 1 team in the Premier League were able to play a little below their best and still dominate completely the seventh best team in the league to an indecent degree.

City did so with a grace that suggests this team can still carry all before them this season. Phil Foden was magnetic in those early exchanges. He has presence now, an aura. He knows how good he is. This is a player who can simply move quicker than you, who has a more intimate relationship with space and the ball. Foden really is going to get a lot of full-backs into a terrible state over the coming years.

And in that first half Spurs were swamped, overwhelmed, landlocked, quicksanded. With 20 minutes gone Kane had touched the ball twice. He began to creep into the game after half‑time, holding the ball, finding pockets of space. It is easy to forget in all the goal‑talk, the trophy-talk, the ankle‑talk, but Kane is just a really good footballer, with a vicious goalscoring edge thrown in. Stick him in this City team and they’d have been 5-0 up by the hour.

For 82 minutes the prospect swirled around, dimly, that this post-Super League occasion would present some kind of real-time riposte to that piece of reality TV. Spurs were just filler. But could they produce a classical heartwarming upset, Super League minnows hauling in the Super League giants through nothing but pluck and a so-so multimillion-pound squad?

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Actually, no. It will do Raheem Sterling some good to have played a part in the only goal. It was his run that brought a foul near the byline. Kevin De Bruyne put City’s 24th cross of the day into the box. Aymeric Laporte headed home.

City took the spoils but there was a gentle nudge here that even at this level the gulf between the top and the rest is always widening. There is time to work on those elements that almost led to a disastrous rupture. For now it feels like enough to be back in the game.