‘Eoin’ as a Scottish Gaelic name translates into ‘Iain’ in English. Please remember that when conversing with any Aberdeen fan that happens to be in their late-twenties-to-early-thirties, because, for the person you’re speaking to, this is no regular Eoin, Ian, Iain, Owen, Tom, Dick or Harry, this is North East footballing royalty, Eoin Jess.
There are many great players who made a significant impression on my childhood. At one stage or another my mum was at the kitchen window shouting at me for smashing the ball against the garage door while I was taking on a spectrum of International Superstars ranging from Baggio, Bierhoff, Beckham, Bergkamp, and Batistuta, to Zidane and Zola via Figo, Larsson, Hasslebank, Salas and Suker. In those days my football influences ranged from Saturday morning ‘Gazetta Football Italia’ to the ‘Renford Rejects’. So why then opt for Eoin Jess? Why, in fact, pick him ahead of other favourites from the pages of the Pittodrie Profile, players like Theo Snelders, Scott Booth and Lee Richardson.
When I opted to write about Eoin Jess there was certainly little chance of any cross over from any of the other Scottish Comedy FC contributors. Rest assured however, if all those contributors were Aberdeen fans of my generation I’d be willing to bet the price of a return air-fare to Kazakstan that we would be fighting over who got to write about the great man.
Aberdeen was an obsession when I was a child and that’s what I remember when I talk about Jess. It isn’t so much specific moments such as the keepie-ups in the 1995 League Cup Semi Final, or his absolute screamer against Rangers in the same year, it is the memory of how much I admired the player that rings true. It’s like how I loved Ghostbusters and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I couldn’t tell you my favourite Turtles moment or Ghostbusters episode – I just remember loving them.
For people with a passion for football, or more specifically for one team in particular, this is all par for the course. We measure time through football, mark certain moments against what was happening with our team. I remember for example the trauma of every April Fool’s Day when my dad would wake us up and tell us – straight faced – that Eoin Jess had signed for Rangers. I remember sobbing uncontrollably all the way back to Dingwall after he broke his leg directly in front of my seat in the North Stand. I remember the red of my dad’s McEwan’s lager can and the ‘A-Fab’, ‘Living Design’, and ‘North Sound Radio’ tops. I remember my red and navy AFC pencil cases. I remember my brother being told by his teacher to stop telling his classmates that Eoin Jess was his cousin, and I remember his ‘World’s Greatest Eoin Jess Fan’ mug – I was so jealous of it.
Aberdeen, and Jess in particular, was such a big part of my childhood that there was no other player I could possibly write about. No other player reminds me of how much I love football, of how needlessly obsessive football can make a young boy, and how it can unite and divide – some of my brother and I’s most heated arguments were about who most appreciated Jess’ talents, I’d always be forced to concede and had to pretend that Scott Booth was my favourite for most of my childhood.
What is it about Jess that makes him stand out for fans of my generation? He was a gifted player ahead of his time with an ability to pick up the ball in midfield and drift effortlessly past players exploiting brilliantly that space between midfield and attack. In 1991 he scored all four goals against Dunfermline, in 1995 he played his finest 90 minutes for Aberdeen against Rangers in the League Cup Semi-Final, although some might argue it was his performance against Torino in the 1993 UEFA Cup. In an era when Celtic and Rangers spent millions – and yes disgruntled Old Firm fans I do remember Paul Bernard – Jess was a player who could outgun the Old Firm big guns. Scoring spectacular goals was habitual for him and the fact that so many of them were against Rangers certainly didn’t hurt in the popularity stakes.
Which brings me to the 1995 League Cup semi-final where Jess ‘out-Gazza’d’ Gazza. A cocksure Jess controlled the game from the midfield while Gazza huffed and puffed never coming close to matching his exploits on the Hampden turf that day. Jess ran the show, even managing the now famous keepie-ups along the touch line – famous for Dons fans at least. When the teams faced each other again just a few weeks later at Ibrox Gazza hadn’t forgotten Jess’s showboating apparently instructing Ian Ferguson to ‘show him into him’. How did Jess respond? By picking up the ball on the halfway line, beating two players, and smashing it in the top-corner from 30 yards. That gained the respect of the Rangers star who apparently told Jess afterwards, ‘you can play a bit son’.
Right back at you Gazza, and yes you’re right, he really could. Jess was at it time and time again against Rangers. His free kick and brilliant on-the-turn volley a few seasons later come to mind. He was always a thorn in Ranger’s side and as the mid-to-late nineties drew in he was about the only ammunition I had against my title-gobbling Rangers-supporting school pals.
Gazza wasn’t the only one impressed by Jess’ exploits with reported interest from Italy and high flying Serie A clubs such as Parma at the time. Jess however opted for an ill-fated move to a Coventry side managed by Gordon Strachan and locked in a relegation battle.
Jess was never suited to a team battling relegation and he managed just one goal in a difficult season which ended with Coventry narrowly staying in the Premiership by one point. He returned to Aberdeen just a season after he had left and it wasn’t long before he was back battling for survival at the bottom of the table. Having left an Aberdeen team packed with talent but perhaps not reaching its potential he returned to one that was in decline. The end of Roy Aitken’s reign as manager and the beginning of Alex Miller’s short reign marked a dark slump into absolute mediocrity and financial turmoil. Even at his then apparent post-best, it was obvious Jess was playing well below his obvious abilities.
Over two spells at Aberdeen Jess gave the club 13 years of service and was perhaps a victim of his own loyalty. For non AFC fans the mention of Eoin Jess’s name is often met with one word, ‘potential’ – a player that perhaps never quite fulfilled that potential. It is a fair argument. Jess himself has admitted he should never have moved to Coventry, and given his time again he would have held out for a move to Italy.
For me it wasn’t so much the move to Coventry but his return to Aberdeen that was problematic for Jess. It comes down to circumstance, when he returned to the club in 1997 it was at the tail end of a disastrous policy of over-spending and the beginning of the club’s freefall towards the bottom of the table. Jess had started his professional career in a team that lost out on the title on the last day of the season at Ibrox, a team that had completed a domestic cup double. He was instrumental in the club finishing second in the 92/93 season, he almost single handily won the League Cup in 1995, and had some truly impressive European performances to boot.
When Jess re-joined the Dons in 1997 perhaps he expected a team like the one he had honed his talents at in the early nineties, or at least a club with the ambition to do so. What he actually got was a succession of bog-standard Aberdeen sides and even then Jess rarely disappointed in such mediocre surroundings. He was eventually frozen out by manager Ebbe Skovdahl in 2001 for questioning the club’s ambition. It was an unceremonious end for such a fantastic and celebrated servant of the club.
There is no doubt that had Eoin Jess left the club at the height of his prowess he would have more Scotland caps, more winners’ medals, and more money in his bank account. I am of course glad that he didn’t. Players like Shearer, Gerrard -and yes I am putting Jess in that category – could have moved and could have achieved more at different clubs, but had they done so they would never have been awarded the cult status afforded to them in their respective cities. Eoin Jess fits that bill. News of Jess’s untimely stroke at the age of 38 in 2009 was as upsetting at the time as watching him break his leg against Clydebank all those years earlier, he’s since made a full recovery.
Eoin Jess was more than a good player, for me he represents a happy childhood and brings me back to those days smashing the ball against the garage door. His name still comes up frequently when my family get together and he featured heavily in my best man speech when my brother got married a few years ago. I can only hope that any future Downie sprogs have such an iconic and gifted player to idolise in their youth.
Puts pen down, and wipes tear from eye.