Elijah Adebayo was hunched over at full time. He put his hands on his knees and breathed out.
Luton’s players knew the opportunity which was theirs for the taking at Kenilworth Road. They went into the game as clear favourites and lost.
The hope of being four points clear of Everton, who had lost to Manchester City, was real. As was the chance to climb to 15th in the table. But all hope slid from their vision board in six mad minutes.
Sheffield United scored their first goal on the half hour mark. Cameron Archer scuffed a chance from seven yards out but did not let it get to him. Less than a minute later, he flew around Luton defender Gabriel Osho and slotted past Thomas Kaminski.
United’s second was scored by James McAtee from the penalty spot. Sheffield United midfielder Vini Souza headed the ball towards goal and it flicked off the arm of Reece Burke. Luton’s initial complaints cooled somewhat in the second half when they were awarded an equally contentious penalty for a carbon-copy incident. Adebayo’s header grazed Souza’s hand and, after intervention from the video assistant referee, it was given.
Luton captain Carlton Morris’ conversion supercharged his team-mates, who yearned for a comeback win and gave voice to the home support.
In the end, though, the fans’ songs and players’ efforts both amounted for little. As the atmosphere thickened, it was Souza, a player central to the game’s plot, who tempered it.
Luton were pickpocketed of possession (of which they had 75 per cent in total) on the edge of their box by former Everton midfielder Tom Davies. Full-back Ben Osborn then assisted Souza’s first Premier League goal, which gave United their third win of the season.
Chris Wilder’s team scored all three of their shots on target. They had a cutting edge that Rob Edwards’ side, who scored eight times in their previous two matches, lacked.
Adebayo had scored four goals in Luton’s previous games against Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United. He tried to stay busy but had few sniffs of adding to his nine goals in 22 games.
His 0.41 expected goals (xG) dropped to 0.27 xG in this one. The closest he came to scoring — and potentially becoming Luton’s first player to reach double digits in the Premier League — was when he managed to control Ross Barkley’s headed pass after one of Alfie Doughty’s 13 corners. The 26-year-old striker’s shot was kept out by Wes Foderingham.
Adebayo is one player who is not losing belief in Luton or himself. After becoming the first Luton player to score a hat-trick in the top flight since Lars Elstrup in 1990 when he netted his Brighton treble, Adebayo achieved something greater than taking home a match ball or earning a nomination for Premier League player of the month (which he has for January).
It is that he can cut it at the top level after a circuitous route to the Premier League. Adebayo, who is of Nigerian descent, joined Fulham’s academy when he was eight. He left his family home in Brent, north London, to be closer to Fulham’s facilities in the south west of the capital when he was only 14.
He has played in the seventh tier of English football during loans to Slough Town and Bognor Regis Town. Temporary spells at Cheltenham Town, Swindon Town and Stevenage followed before a permanent switch to Walsall when he was 17. It was his 18 goals in 55 games there that alerted Luton to his talent. They signed him for £250,000 in February 2021.
Three years on, that has proved to be a bargain.
“He looks at home at this level,” Edwards said on Friday. “That’s real credit to him, to his mentality, to his work rate, his desire to improve, so he’s a brilliant inspiration to a lot of young people. His journey, to see where he is right now and the great thing is, the exciting thing for us is that there’s loads more to come as well. He’s just starting to realise his potential, which is brilliant.”
Adebayo will hope he continues to realise the potential which Edwards speaks of. And that it can help lead Luton to safety and him to continued success and a first international call-up.
“I would like to play for Nigeria,” Adebayo told The Times. “It would make my mum happy, make her proud. That’s something we’ve spoken about. Playing for England? It would be a case of whichever comes first. My mum would be proud if I played for Nigeria or England, but Nigeria especially.”
Adebayo and his mum were cheering Nigeria on in the AFCON final against Ivory Coast. By the time Nigeria play again, he could be in the squad.
(George Wood/Getty Images)