Don't come home too soon, warns Jess

A SCOTTISH international midfielder, taken to the English Premiership from his hometown club, before returning north prematurely in a cut-price deal. Barry Ferguson’s likely installation as Rangers’ returning prodigal may have sparked extended debate but it is a concept that former Aberdeen stalwart Eoin Jess knows well, having made a similar switch in 1997, less than two years after Ron Atkinson took him to Coventry City for £2million.

"Yeah, there are similarities," admits Jess, currently nursing a thigh injury that has kept him out of the Nottingham Forest team since November. "I don’t know the situation but Blackburn have struggled this year and maybe Barry’s not used to that. He’s used to winning trophies and so on so it must be more difficult for him than it was for me to adapt. Only Barry can answer that, but Rangers are a massive club and you can understand why he’d miss it.

"With me, it was different. The time I had at Coventry was fantastic. We were battling relegation but that meant it was a cup final every week at these fantastic places, Old Trafford, Anfield and so on. Then Ron went and Gordon [Strachan] stepped up from assistant. He was honest with me and said he was happy to keep me but he couldn’t guarantee that I’d play. I think the club had also decided to sell me and I really needed to play every week."

The result was Aberdeen coughing up 700,000 of the windfall they had received 17 months earlier to take Jess back to Pittodrie. The news was greeted with delight by Aberdeen fans, for whom Jess had been a treasured asset since a hefty contribution to the 1989 League Cup triumph over Rangers at the age of 18. However, Jess reveals that if there had been some improved office administration down Govan way, he could have been on the losing side in that match.

"I signed for Rangers at 13 and was with them until I left school, training with John Spencer and guys like that. But they actually misplaced my forms, they sort of went missing and Rangers didn’t seem to know I existed. So I signed for Aberdeen and it was definitely the right decision, by the time that Spenny got a chance at Rangers I’d played umpteen games for Aberdeen."

Jess hit the ground running at Pittodrie, adding a youthful vigour to a side that retained several members of the club’s golden age under Sir Alex Ferguson. "I was lucky to come into a team that was Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Jim Bett, Charlie Nicholas, Hans Gillhaus and so on," he recalls. "They were great players and it was a fantastic learning curve. We were winning cups as well, which helped me progress as a player."

News of Jess’s emergence spread and he was still in club digs when he received the offer of international recognition. Surprisingly, the call came not from then Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh but from Northern Ireland’s Billy Bingham.

"Billy phoned me at the digs, he’d found out that my dad is from Northern Ireland," says Jess. "I went away and spoke to dad and [Aberdeen manager] Alex Smith, but it wasn’t a hard decision, it was always going to be Scotland. I know that Alex contacted Andy Roxburgh and that’s maybe why I got called up quite early."

Jess, who would gain 18 caps, also had a significant role in one of the most heartbreaking days in Aberdeen’s history, when Smith took his team to Ibrox on the final day of the 1990-91 season needing just a point to win the league. Mark Hateley’s physical intimidation of rookie Aberdeen goalkeeper Michael Watt is a common talking point of Rangers’ victory but he was not the only Englishman bent on victory through fair means or foul.

"Yeah, I got a nice challenge from Mr Hurlock," laughs Jess. "I used to have a few set-tos with Terry over those seasons and he certainly made sure there. I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy, these things happen, but I had to go off at half-time which was devastating to be honest. It was such a big day for the team and the city but it shouldn’t be forgotten that we had been ten points behind them, we did ever so well to be top when we kicked off."

That defeat was to prove the start of a decline for Aberdeen that has only this season showed any genuine sign of being abated. By 1996, after eight-and-a-half years of service, Jess had decided to move on but his loyalty to the club meant that he passed on the chance to become the first Scot to play in Italy since Joe Jordan.

"My contract was up in the summer and I could have left on a Bosman, but I felt that Aberdeen deserved to get a fee," he says. "Sampdoria had made contact and they were keen on a Bosman. Certainly, that kind of thing would have been much better for me financially, but I felt morally bound to getting the club money so I told them in January my decision and a month later I went to Coventry."

It was the end of a period of sterling service from Jess (his current six week lay-off is the longest injury spell of his career) and his departure was greeted with reluctant acceptance by appreciative Aberdeen fans. However, the manner of his leaving the second time around in 2001 was to prove very different.

Jess had returned from Coventry to find the club’s fall from grace continuing, and his frustrations soon provoked an ill-advised media battle with the board.

"It was a difficult few years for the team, the fans, everyone," says Jess. "We’d gone from being right up there to just struggling along and it was very hard for to take because we were so desperate to bring some success to Aberdeen.

"Ebbe Skovdahl had come out and said that the club needed investment and about a week later I said the same, that I wanted to see ambition from the board before I talked about a new contract."

Jess’s request was greeted with fury by the Aberdeen board, who were wrestling with a spiralling debt. "I never knew the financial situation," explains Jess. "They never told me, and they clearly hadn’t told the manager.

"They made it clear that I wouldn’t be playing for Aberdeen again and that really hurt, that it should end like that. It came out in the press that I’d turned down 8,000 a week but that was total nonsense, I never even got offered a contract before they loaned me to Bradford."

Jess experienced relegation from the Premiership with Bradford before ending the following season as top scorer to earn a move to Forest. The 34-year-old’s current injury, a change of manager and the club’s position at the foot of the Championship table have left him only hopeful of extending his stay beyond this summer and ending his playing days at the City Ground. Either way, he insists he has no regrets from a career that many suggest could have brought greater reward, including over that return journey in 1997.

"Maybe it was the easy option and maybe I should have stayed and fought for my place but I’d always envisaged going back to Aberdeen in the end," he says. "It didn’t end up being great, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless. I don’t have any regrets, I always wanted to play in the Premiership and I did that. It maybe didn’t end fantastically but I loved my time at Aberdeen and I played for my country so, all in all, it’s not been too bad at all."