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Efan Ekoku: Nigeria’s forgotten Premier League pioneer

Efan Ekoku: Nigeria’s forgotten Premier League pioneer

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The Norwich Hall of Famer was a man of many firsts, despite a modest career and a forgettable international record

To a certain consumer demographic (much of the marketing encourages one to think of it as a product anyway), Efan Ekoku is simply an erudite, well-spoken commentator for Premier League Productions.

As the images have gotten glossier, the pitches greener and the passes have shortened, it has become harder to relate to a bygone era of England’s top flight, even one as recent as the 1990s.

So, except for the Norwich faithful, it is easy to forget just who Ekoku was in his time as a professional footballer, and what he represented, even though only now has Alex Iwobi equalled his haul of 160 Premier League appearances.

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Born in Manchester but of Nigerian parentage, Efan was something of a late bloomer by modern standards, beginning his professional career at the ripe old age of 23. After shining for Third Division Bournemouth under Harry Redknapp (who would go on to manage a number of Nigerian footballers in his career), the striker was recruited to bolster Norwich City’s Premier League title tilt, in the process becoming the first Nigerian to play in the fledgling Premier League.

Despite scoring twice in the remaining six fixtures of the campaign, the Canaries were ultimately unable to last the course, and settled for a place in the Uefa Cup.

The following season saw Ekoku hit some significant firsts.

His sumptuous volley, at the end of a flowing move against Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, was Norwich’s first in European competition. It set the club on its way to a memorable run to the Third Round, as they beat Bayern Munich along the way before suffering elimination at the hands of eventual winners Internazionale.

An inspired September for the pacey centre-forward continued when he notched four goals in a 5-1 away rout of Everton in the ninth game of the season.

That return – the first of its kind in a Premier League match – took his tally for the season to five, and set him on the way to his best-ever scoring season in English football, with 14.

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That total may have been bettered had he not been called away by Nigeria for the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in March, as he missed six matches in total; in any case, this was Ekoku at his absolute peak, and he was also a part of the Super Eagles’ squad to its first-ever World Cup in the USA that same year.

An ill-advised move to Wimbledon following the World Cup saw Ekoku largely maintain his form, but despite scoring 18 goals over the course of his first two seasons, the sense was that he never quite fit.

Some of that was to do with the fact that, as a replacement for John Fashanu, he was hardly like-for-like. The Dons played a unique, strongly reviled brand of football, with dollops of verticality and brutality into the mix, and while Fashanu was suited to that style, Ekoku was not so much.

Minutes were harder to come by after that, and after a year of only sporadic use, he handed in a transfer request.

He eventually got his wish in 1999, moving to Switzerland to join Grasshoppers. The club was at the time managed by Roy Hodgson, who had seen Ekoku play while coaching a World XI selection during a match organized in honour of Nelson Mandela.

This marked the end of his Premier League adventure, although he would return to England following Hodgson’s sacking to play out the rest of his career.

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Most retrospectives will seek to romanticize a player in order to service a certain narrative. However, in the case of Ekoku, it is enough to simply acknowledge him as a Nigerian pioneer.

While he was never as prolific as the truly elite, he was a man for big moments who knew his way to goal. In all, he played over 300 matches in English league football, and scored 100 goals.

That his playing career is somewhat forgotten now is no doubt a legacy of the relatively modest level of club he played for.

It also does not help that the entirety of his international career amounted to six caps.

It is a low tally, granted. However, it is worth considering what he was up against at the time: not just, in Rashidi Yekini, Nigeria’s most iconic striker ever, but also the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba and Samson Siasia. It is even less of a slight on Ekoku when one considers that Richard Owubokiri, a legend at Portuguese club Boavista who averaged under a goal every other game in just under 50 appearances, barely got a look-in.

Nevertheless, he is remembered with fondness by fans at Carrow Road, even if not in the streets of Lagos—in 2012, he was inducted into the Norwich City Hall of Fame.

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