While Barcelona were reaching new heights against Valencia, one of the Catalan capital’s newest residents was hunched over a laptop absorbed in how things were unfolding in Aberdeen. The scene sums up Eoin Jess’s continued love affair with his former club.
Gary Neville’s mounting problems as his Valencia side slumped to a 7-0 loss at the Nou Camp could not have been further from the Scot’s mind. Jess, now 45, has recently moved to Barcelona for a sabbatical, as he terms it. He’s lost to football, for the time being at least. But there has been no cutting of the cord connecting him to Aberdeen, the club where he starred for much of the 1990s.
He is witness to times when Aberdeen were able to confidently expect victory over Celtic. While it confirmed nothing in terms of the championship race, Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Parkhead side was a landmark occasion in one regard: it was the first time Aberdeen have beaten Celtic twice at home in a league season for more than 25 years.
Jess played in two of Aberdeen’s three victories over Celtic in the 1990-91 campaign, scoring the winner at Parkhead in April as the Pittodrie side upped the ante in their attempt to wrest the title from Rangers, winning 11 of their last 13 games.
It is Celtic who are in their sights now, meaning hopes are high that Aberdeen can lift a first league championship since 1985, which pre-dates even Jess’s time at the club.
As if to underline how difficult it is to win a title, even a team including such talents as Jess, Hans Gillhaus, Theo Snelders and Jim Bett didn’t succeed. They did, however, come agonisingly close. Needing only a draw at Ibrox on the final day of the league season, they lost 2-0.
Jess was tickled to discover Gillhaus was involved in the Sky Sports television coverage of Wednesday’s vital win, the Dutch striker having been enticed back to Pittodrie for a rare visit.
Jess has not seen his old team-mate since the last game they played together for Aberdeen. “He’s Dutch, so has always been able to speak good English,” he said, with reference to the player’s confident performance as an analyst. “He also has a wealth of experience. It was nice to see him, I haven’t seen him for years and years. He has even less hair than I have now!”
Back in an era of floppy fringes, Jess and Gillhaus struck up a fruitful partnership. The then young Scot scored 13 times, including four in one game against Dunfermline, while Gillhaus, a former European Cup winner with PSV Eindhoven, went one better, hitting 14 goals.
“Rangers were ten points clear with a number of games still to go,” Jess recalls. “But we managed to claw it back to the last game of the season, which of course ended in great disappointment.”
“I won the Scottish Cup and League Cup and played for my country, but obviously never won a championship medal,” he adds. “That’s hard to take, especially when it goes to the last game of the season. It just wasn’t to be.”
Obviously he would prefer things not to end so badly this time around, but he does sense some similarities with back then. “Aberdeen are the ones doing the pursuing again, Celtic this time,” he says. “You have to win the games against them if you are competing with Celtic or Rangers, as it was in our day. Other games hopefully will take care of themselves.”
Aberdeen lost only once in the league to the Ibrox side in 1990-91 – on the final day. They have already beaten Celtic twice but must now “take care” of a trio of tricky away games, beginning against St Johnstone tomorrow.
“I will be checking my phone for updates,” says Jess. “But there is no point winning last night and not getting a result on Saturday.”
After Perth come equally testing trips to Inverness and Partick Thistle later this month, on a Monday and Friday of the same week thanks to live television coverage, not that Jess is complaining. It means he can tune in from Catalonia, like he did in midweek.
“I was lucky enough to get the Celtic game on the laptop,” he says. “I sat and watched it. It was good to get it as it saved me going to a bar!” Is he ever recognised at all?
“Barcelona people are looking for Messi and Iniesta, they are not looking for Eoin Jess,” he says, laughing. He returned such indifference on Wednesday night. For once he was more interested in what Simon Church could serve up than the likes of Messi, who were, in any case, doing quite nicely at the Nou Camp in the first leg of their Copa del Rey encounter with Gary Neville’s struggling Valencia.
“My interest was more on the Aberdeen game,” he says. “Yes, I’ve been to the Nou Camp since coming here. I am a bit of a football snob, I like to see the game played the right way. Obviously Barcelona are the best in the world at it.
“Even if you are not at the game you know when Barcelona score because firecrackers go off. When you walk down the street you know Barcelona have scored, the bars all erupt. They are fanatical.”
Of course, there would be similar scenes on Union Street and elsewhere in Aberdeen were Derek McInnes’s side to scratch a 31-year itch by securing the Scottish championship. Jess doesn’t return regularly to the area where he grew up, and his accent now melds the north-east of Scotland with the Midlands, where he was based while pursuing a coaching career at Nottingham Forest and then Peterborough.
That has now ended, prompting him to try something else. “I became a little bit disenchanted with it all,” he says. “ But I still have a love of the game. I mean, I did it for 20-odd years, so time for a change. Who knows if I go back into it? For the moment I am travelling down a different path, enjoying life in Barcelona.
“I am looking to do a bit of property stuff. It is just a long sabbatical.”
Having fewer commitments leaves him free to cancel the Spanish language lessons he is currently taking to head back to Pittodrie if Aberdeen are able to maintain their title challenge until the last few weeks of the season.
“Yes, I would come back,” he says. “I have found it quite difficult to find the time to go back. The last time I was put off because it was so bloody cold. Who knows? If they get close I will be looking for a ticket. But I know they will be like gold dust.”
Something extraordinary really must be brewing if Eoin Jess has difficulty getting a ticket for Pittodrie.