Interview: Eoin Jess fights off the heartache

EOIN JESS is trying to be philosophical about the heart operation that he will undergo later this month.

A scan at the end of last year revealed a hole in it that needed closing pretty sharpish, but he insists that there is nothing to worry about. It will be a minor procedure, not the kind that opens up your ribcage, and if there are no complications, he will be out the next day. "I'm basically getting it patched up, like a tyre," he says.

That he can afford to be flippant must be a good sign. This, after all, is an opportunity to solve the health problems that led to his stroke almost exactly a year ago. On 2 April, 2009, the former Aberdeen striker bent down to pick up one of his socks, couldn't do it, and noticed that the left side of his mouth was drooping, his speech slurred. How, they asked, could someone so young and fit, a former professional footballer no less, be subjected to a scare like that?

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The doctors claimed that his cholesterol levels were too high, but it proved to be a misleading explanation. What they have since discovered is a hole that has been in his heart since he was born nearly 40 years ago. In all that time, he had no idea that it existed, never mind that it could threaten his life, but it did. "A lot of people out there probably have a hole in their heart, and go through life without having any problems, but I was unlucky in that it caused my stroke. It's not so much a hole as a little flap really. A sneeze or a cough can open it, blood flows out and it forms a clot. If it is open for too long, blood goes to places it shouldn't be going."

It scared Jess, frightened his family and shocked Scottish football, which remembers the fresh-faced lad from Portsoy as one of its most talented products. Suddenly, the player who won three trophies with Aberdeen and 18 Scotland caps was confronted by his own mortality. "It put things into perspective, made me realise that you're not on this planet for long," he says. "You have to live as best you can."

But, in a number of other respects, he can count himself fortunate. As assistant manager of Nottingham Forest's youth academy, he is in the early stages of a coaching career, glad not only to have survived the stroke, but to have found a way of preventing another. "I have to look upon myself as a bit lucky," he says. "Some people have strokes that cause paralysis or even death, but it doesn't seem to have affected me. At least I'm getting it fixed. I can get on with things and not be worrying about it happening again. I'm sure I'll be a bit nervous when I go in for the operation, but on the whole, I'm pretty laid-back about it. It's not major surgery. They have keyholes and cameras these days."

Jess is grateful that the condition went unnoticed during a playing career that encompassed two long spells with Aberdeen. When the hole in Asa Hartford's heart was discovered in 1971, it cost him a move to Leeds United. Danny Swanson, the Dundee United player who was born with a heart defect, had to undergo a scan before he was allowed to play in the SPL. "Things have changed now, but in all my medicals, I never actually had a heart scan," says Jess. "If I had, maybe my clubs wouldn't have taken a chance on me, and my career could have been completely different."

Aberdeen fans are glad that it wasn't. When the news broke a year ago, they bombarded him with messages of support. Not only is he a local boy, he is arguably the club's last great player, a striker many believe had the talent to perform at a much higher level. "It gave me strength to know that people out there care, that you have touched them somehow with your football. I had 11 great years with Aberdeen, and everyone knows how I feel about the club. To know that you've entertained people, and that you're still respected up there ... it's really, really nice."

This week, of all weeks, Jess will be remembered in the north. On Wednesday night, Aberdeen will make another of these wretched visits to Ibrox that have produced not a single victory since 28 September 1991, when he and Brian Grant were the scorers in a 2-0 triumph. Jess grabbed the opener that day after Theo ten Caat and Scott Booth had combined to set him up in the box. He took a touch, looked up and slammed it high past Andy Goram. Grant later said that there were bittersweet emotions after the final whistle. Why could they not have done that on the last day of the previous season, when they needed only a draw to secure the title?

Those were heady days, which contrast sharply with Aberdeen's subsequent travails in Govan. Jimmy Calderwood, their manager until the end of last season, believes that an intense rivalry between the clubs' supporters – stemming largely from Neil Simpson's career-threatening tackle on Ian Durrant – has complicated the challenge at Ibrox, where they find themselves up against the kind of passion that few other visitors encounter.

Not that it bothered Jess, who seemed to reserve his best for Rangers, the club which released him as a teenager. "There always seemed to be an edge to these matches, a great atmosphere that I just loved. These were the games that probably got the best out of me. They were passing games, with a bit more space to play. It suited my style."

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Aberdeen's last defeat of Rangers in Glasgow was in the 1995 League Cup semi-final at Hampden, when a Billy Dodds double saw them through, and Jess indulged in a spot of showboating down by the touchline. His impromptu display of keepy-uppy, after the ball had been contemptuously stroked about the midfield, was lapped up by the Aberdeen fans, who talk about it to this day.

When it happened, Paul Gascoigne wasn't happy, and told him as much in language that Jess cannot repeat. "You would have done the same," replied Jess, who then found himself marked out of the game by the England international. When they met at Ibrox two weeks later, the ill feeling persisted. As they lined up for the kick-off, Gascoigne turned to his team-mate, Ian Ferguson, and within earshot of Jess, declared: "Show him into me. I'm going to break his leg."

Jess admits that he was apprehensive, but it didn't hold him back when the whistle blew. In fact, he went on to score one of his most famous goals, a surge past two midfielders and a raking shot into the top left-hand corner. As they trooped off at half-time, Gascoigne sought out the Aberdeen striker once again. "What a goal that was," he said. "You can play." To which Jess replied: "You're not bad yourself."

Jess likes that story. He had earned Gascoigne's respect, and plenty others' beside. His 83 goals in 338 appearances for Aberdeen included the first in SPL history. At international level, there were comparisons with Kenny Dalglish. As he neared the end of his career, they said that he hadn't fulfilled his potential, that he didn't take responsibility against lesser opponents, but you don't hear much of that now, not in Aberdeen anyway.

"Maybe I wasn't as consistent as I could have been – I'd be the first to admit that – but I'm proud of what I achieved. A lot of people aren't lucky enough to play for their country and win things. I suppose, yes, I could have done a lot more, but I'm happy enough. Look at the accolades and appreciation I get from Aberdeen fans. I must have been doing something right."

His biggest regret is moving to Coventry City in 1996. He could not adapt his game to a relegation battle, and lasted only a year and a half before returning to Pittodrie. "I would change that decision if I could. Maybe I should have held on to see if anybody else came in. I was getting interest from Italy, and if I had gone there, things might have been different. I would like to have played abroad. It would have suited me better. But I wanted to play in the Premier League. It was the place to be at that time. It still is."

Jess could be back there next season with Nottingham Forest, the club for whom he played in the twilight of his career. He suspects that promotion would increase the youth academy's budget, and offer him more involvement at first-team level. Having started only three years ago as part-time coach of the under-13 team, he is now being praised for his work with the under-18s, who have moved to within a few games of winning their league.

Jess used to be wary of management, but like many retired players, he has changed his mind. He loves it at Forest, whose principles under Billy Davies give him an invaluable education, but when the time comes to branch out on his own, he will not hesitate to do so, maybe even in his homeland. "If I was to go into managing or coaching at first-team level, I think maybe there would be more opportunities for me up there. We will cross that bridge when we come to it, but yeah, why not?"