FOR Abi Ekoku the past year has brought a change in relative values. Previously, his sporting prowess had put the other members of his family in his shade; now he is coming to terms with being described as 'Efan's brother'. Reflected glory tends to shift around in the Ekoku household.
It may not have stopped shifting, either. Efan is demanding attention at the moment as a footballer with an expanding reputation with Norwich City but Abi, an international discus thrower, is hardly cowed by this outbreak of sibling achievement. On the contrary, he is making such extraordinary progress as a rugby league wing with London Crusaders that his coach is already proposing him as a future international. And this is after playing fewer than 20 games.
'Efan and I are lucky in that we're naturally athletic,' explained Abi, who, at 27, is the older by 14 months. 'If you're big and quick, well co-ordinated and have ball skills there will always be a place for you somewhere in sport. His is in football, I'm happy with what I've achieved so far in rugby league.'
It has been a week laced with significance for both brothers. On Wednesday, Efan appeared in his biggest match to date, a Uefa Cup tie against Inter Milan in Italy, while today Abi faces the most important test of his fledgling career, in the third round of the Regal Trophy at Ryedale York.
The former lost in Milan, much to the regret of the latter who regularly watches his brother play and who viewed Wednesday's match on television. 'They were unlucky,' he said. 'Norwich played well and might have got through if they were a bit sharper in front of goal.' A criticism of Ekoku jnr, who had his side's best chance, perhaps? 'Not at all. I thought he did extremely well considering he has only trained three times in the past seven weeks.'
''Efan is not a natural striker, he's a foil for someone like Mark Robins, who will always score goals. I think they'll make an exciting partnership if they ever get together. The Premier Division has yet to see Efan at his best. He's done well but his greatest strength is his ability to run at defenders and he's only done that once or twice this season. When he starts doing that he'll really make people sit up and take notice.'
Both brothers play down any suggestion of rivalry. 'We joke about it,' Efan said. 'Until I signed for Norwich, hardly anyone had heard of me. It's a change for me to be the more famous.'
They were competitive, they insist, but the closeness of their age meant they spent their formative years in Liverpool playing as team-mates rather than in opposition. Indeed Abi might have been a footballer, too, if he had not concentrated on the discus, a discipline in which he has represented Great Britain since 1987 (best throw 60.08m).
He would probably be preparing exclusively for next year's Commonwealth Games had he not torn a pectoral muscle last year. The discus was out of the question but matches for St Mary's, an amateur rugby league team in London, were not and he was soon drawing scouts from professional clubs.
'I watched him for 10 minutes and was convinced he had a future in the game,' Tony Gordon, the former New Zealand coach who is now with Crusaders, said. 'He's big and strong and, unlike many players with little experience, he is good defensively. At the moment he is playing the wing, which is a learning position, but eventually I expect him to play in the second row. He's the sort of player a coach dreams of working with. There's a world of difference between a talented player who thinks he knows it all and one who is willing to listen and work. It's Abi's attitude, his desire to learn, that makes me think he'll go all the way. Certainly, Great Britain should be watching him closely.'
Ekoku's learning process has also been an eye-opener for opposition wings who are confronted with a player with a forward's build and a sprinter's speed; he has been clocked at 4.3 seconds for 40 metres. At 6ft 1in, Efan is no midget either, but if some footballers are intimidated when he receives the ball, they should be thankful it's not his brother they have to tackle. It usually takes a posse of tacklers to haul him down when the 6ft 3in, 15st Abi is at full pelt.
The biggest doubt about both Ekokus is their relatively late arrivals in their sports. Efan, signed from Bournemouth for pounds 450,000 in March, is 26 and was playing non-League foootball as recently as three years ago. Abi is even older. 'I'm 27 but in terms of freshness I'm about 19,' he said. 'Efan and I could have had 10 years of being knocked about in football and rugby league and the enjoyment might have gone out of it for us. Age is relative; we have a world and Olympic sprint champion who is 34, after all. It's not too late.'
Is there no bone of contention between them? 'Only about who is the faster,' Abi replies. 'He'll say he's quicker than me but he's not. We'll have a race one day, probably for charity.'
The race for renown is already under way.
The Hobbs Brothers - Philip, 38 (racing trainer); Peter, 31 (jockey)
Philip: 'There wasn't much rivalry. We were both trying to make a living from the game, and were pleased when the other did well. I remember when he was younger he was a bit of a rebel - he ran away from school. And he wasn't bright enough to get into university like I did. Nowadays, he's very professional at his job, confident without being cocky, and is a very good judge of a horse. I regard him not as my kid brother but as a fellow professional. But I am sure we have a closer relationship than many trainers and jockeys.'
Peter: 'We both rode competitively as children, but the age difference meant we were never direct rivals. He did influence my career, but it was more by example of what not to do. He rode for a lot of smaller trainers; I chose to be attached to a big stable, Josh Gifford's, when I turned professional (he is now stable jockey to Philip). I think it helps being brothers. We seem to be on each other's wavelength. Many times I get off a horse after a race and start telling him how it felt and what it might need, and I find that he's already told the owners exactly the same thing.'
The Hoddle Brothers - Glenn, 36 (Chelsea manager); Carl, 26 (Barnet player)
Glenn: 'There are 10 years and three inches between Carl and myself. I'm the elder and he's the taller. We've always been close. In fact the whole family is very close. He looked like me and played like me. At the age of 10 Carl was head and shoulders above any other player of his age that I had seen. Unfortunately for Carl he has one of my big weaknesses. I have not been blessed with electrifying pace. Similarly Carl is not naturally quick. But his goal against Crawley was fantastic. I had a feeling when the FA Cup draw was made that we would get Barnet.'
Carl: 'Glenn's got a really strong personality. I've always looked up to him, and we get on well even though there's nine-and-a-half years between us. As far as I'm concerned, there's never been any jealousy, and I think that's probably because of the big age gap. We still played together as children. I can remember games we had in the garden, and obviously I learnt from him. We overlapped at Tottenham briefly when I was 18 and an apprentice and he was well established in the first team. He's always been very good to me.'
The Waugh twins - Steve and Mark, 28 (Australian cricketers)
Steve: 'I guess we have always been competitive since about the age of 10, though this has been over-emphasised by others. We've very little in common; the closest we've been was when we shared Mum's tum for nine months. I beat him out by four minutes, the only time I won anything undisputed. As a player he's a complete natural, whereas I have to work hard. We seem to have more than our fair share of run-outs when together. I reckon it's about 3-3 on whose fault it is.'
Mark: 'In some ways we're quite similar; we're both very competitive. But we're also very different. As a kid Stephen was always playing pranks. I was the quiet one, which is surprising as he was always pinching my dummy. There is a kind of twins' intuition. When I had a string of ducks in Sri Lanka last year Stephen was holidaying in America. He reckons he dreamt of me getting a few noughts. It was only when he got back to Oz that he found out how close I'd come to achieving the Olympic rings (five ducks in a row, Mark had four). I don't know why we have so many run- outs but he is 5-1 up in the villain stakes.'
The Hastings brothers - Gavin, 31; Scott, 29 (Scotland rugby players)
Gavin: ''I've played with Scott for so long I've lost any big-brother feelings. He's just another team-mate; if he disappears under a pack of forwards I'd react as I would with anyone: 'Get out of there you bloody fool.' Scott is a fine player. He's difficult to stop when he's got the ball and is one of the best tacklers in the game. There was no sibling rivalry because rugby has always been in the family (another brother Graeme also played for Watsonians). If anyone suffered it was Ewan who took up the sport because he was fed up of being used as a ball when he was little.'
Scott: 'It grieves me to say this but Gavin is a very good captain. He has an absolute belief that his team is going to win which rubs off. Like him, I've long since stopped thinking about him as a brother and I now regard him as a friend and team-mate. People make out that I'm the wilder one of the two, but don't believe for a minute that he can't let his hair down when he wants to. An early memory of Gavin was him asking Watsonians to leave the changing-room doors open so that the light would shine on the pitch so he could practise goal kicking. He was about 11 at the time.'Reuse content