In a footballing career where the peaks outnumbered the troughs, Eoin Jess scaled his share of mountains.
A League Cup triumph with Aberdeen at the age of 18 paved the way for international recognition with Scotland. He survived a stroke before his 40th birthday and secured a place in the Pittodrie Hall of Fame. Now, at 51, a new summit beckons.
The infamous massacre of the MacDonalds in 1692 gave Glencoe its ‘Glen of Weeping’ nickname — and Scotland’s most dramatic landscape will play host on Saturday to a sombre and reflective gathering of the Jess clan.
Eoin Jess (left) was close with his mother, Margaret (second from left) and brother Davie (right)
To complete the Great Glencoe Challenge, those taking part have to cross the Devil’s Staircase and reach the foot of Ben Nevis in under 12 hours. Accompanied by a dozen family members and friends raising funds for research into pancreatic cancer, Jess plans to negotiate the 26.2 miles at a manageable pace.
His days of leaving static defenders behind are now a bygone memory and the death of his brother Davie in December — three weeks after the loss of their mother — has taught the Dons legend to live in the moment.
‘Life can be a cruel thing sometimes,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘What happened to Davie wasn’t fair. There was no rhyme or reason as to why the cancer should strike him so suddenly.
‘He was a 53-year-old man. He didn’t smoke, he had been teetotal for 20-odd years, he kept himself fit through hillwalking. He only had 15 or 16 Munros left to bag before he had walked them all and that’s why we’ve decided to honour his memory by doing Glencoe.
‘It was one of his favourite places in the world to walk and it just seems a fitting tribute.’
The first signs of a problem seemed innocuous. Perched by the bedside of their elderly mother in the Grove Care Home in Elgin in December, the brothers were preparing for the inevitable.
At 91 years of age, Margaret Jess had withstood the cruel effects of dementia for three years. ‘Mum hadn’t enjoyed a great quality of life for some time and it was hard to watch,’ says Jess.
‘But we were sitting with her in the same room near the end when Dave complained of a pain in his stomach.
‘When it first came, he thought it was indigestion, nothing more. We thought nothing of it. He was a typical Scotsman.
‘There was no question of going to the doctor, we thought he would take an indigestion tablet and it would pass.
Ex-Scotland regular Jess’s sibling grew up to be a keen hill-walker — a pastime Jess will honour
‘Three or four days after that our mum passed away. By then, Dave had been to the doctor because the pain and the discomfort was becoming too much.
‘Straight away, the doctor referred him to hospital where the tests showed he had pancreatic cancer.
‘Things moved so fast after that. Somehow he managed to find the strength when he was suffering to attend our mum’s funeral.
‘That was devastating enough. Within three weeks of thinking he had a bout of indigestion in the residential home, he had passed away as well. Suddenly I had lost my mother and my big brother.
‘It was scary because he had shown no signs. No jaundice, no weight loss, none of the usual signs of a pancreatic problem, it was staggeringly quick. With mum and him passing away, it’s fair to say it has been a difficult start to 2022.’
In Scotland, just under 1,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year. Research shows that just 5.6 per cent of sufferers will survive for five years. More than half die within three months of diagnosis, with the illness often discovered late due to its vague and common symptoms.
For Davie Jess, the passage of time between indigestion and death was nothing at all and, for his grieving brother, the loss has been painfully difficult.
‘I still have regrets,’ he admits. ‘One is that me and Davie never even had the chance to sit down and talk about how ill he was.
‘He was quite a private person and didn’t really want to talk about it. It all happened so quickly.
‘His wife, Angela, was a district nurse, so she did so much to make his final days as comfortable as she possibly could.’
For the last seven years, Jess has been contentedly retired in Barcelona. The fruits of his football career allow him to flit between home, beach and restaurants easily enough, but proved a handicap when the call came to fly home to see his dying brother.
‘I didn’t get back in time. I flew via Amsterdam and I was there when I got the phone call saying he didn’t have much time.
Jess has recalled how Glencoe was one of his late brother’s favourite spots in the world to walk
‘I was anxious to get back and we were actually flying over Scotland when the captain announced the plane was diverting from Aberdeen to Edinburgh because of a severe fog.
‘If the plane had landed in Aberdeen, I would have made it back in time. The diversion to Edinburgh cost me the chance to say goodbye.’
A father of four, including two stepchildren, Davie made an impact on most of the people he met. In a standing joke between the siblings, he would tell strangers he was the real footballing talent in the family and, for Eoin, it was an easy myth to debunk.
At 17, he made his debut for Aberdeen, where he spent two spells as a local hero and scored a truly world-class goal at Ibrox in 1996.
There were spells, too, at Coventry City, Bradford, Nottingham Forest and Northampton Town. When he hung up his boots, he threw a 40th birthday party while working for Forest in an off-field role, with colleagues telling him they couldn’t believe how much his brother enjoyed the occasion.
Jess explains: ‘I had to tell them: ‘Davie wasn’t drunk’. He was teetotal for years. That’s just the way he was — he would speak to anyone.’
In an emotional video posted on Twitter earlier this week, Jess described his older sibling as his ‘hero and protector’.
‘He was my big brother, plain and simple,’ he says. ‘I always looked up to him.
‘I was in the public eye because of my life as a footballer and, when I took criticism, he would be the first one to stick up for me and back me to the full.
‘And I remember the time he sat me down and said how proud he was of what I’d achieved in my football career.
‘That was a big thing for him because, like most Scotsmen, he kept his feelings to himself.
‘That’s why I remember that day quite vividly. It was around about the time I got into the Aberdeen Hall of Fame, he just opened up a little bit and told me how he felt. Listen, I knew it anyway, but for him to actually speak the words was a different kettle of fish.
‘It was a big moment for me to hear how proud he was of what I had achieved in my football career and I was equally proud to call him my brother.’
These days it takes something worthwhile to persuade Jess to swap the comforting heat of Barcelona for the cloud-laden skies of his homeland.
Speaking to Sportsmail before boarding his flight for Scotland, he admits: ‘I’m effectively retired now and I just fell in love with the city, the culture and the weather.
‘I can be anonymous here. When I go back to the north east of Scotland that’s not the case but, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be noticed from time to time. It shows you have done something right in your football career.
‘But what happened to Davie made me realise that Spain is a vast country and I haven’t seen nearly enough of it. I want to go and see Spain and parts of Europe I haven’t seen now. I want to get through my bucket list.
‘Before then, I believe the forecast is for rain over Glencoe this weekend, so it’s a case of ‘welcome back to Scotland…’.’
Pancreatic Cancer UK have invested £1.6million in research to develop the first-ever simple test for the deadly disease — and laboratory trials suggest it could save thousands of lives every year.
Desperate for funds to move to the next phase, the Jess family have already helped by surpassing their target of £2,500 and hope to double that sum by completing the Great Glencoe Challenge.
‘We are delighted and humbled by the generosity of the public,’ Jess declares. ‘I’m not sure about the walk itself, mind you.
‘The average time to do it is eight-to-ten hours and they give you 12 hours to do it. Fitness-wise, I’m not too bad — but there’s not really a way of preparing for a 26-mile trek up Glencoe.
‘Ultimately, it’s for a great cause in memory of my brother. His loss has certainly affected my perspective on life.
‘Despite the football, I was never as active as he was but, in the last six months, I’ve realised how short life is.
‘He was 53 and his life was snatched away from him. You only get one crack at it and I know now that you have to make the most of every moment.’
Donate to the Great Glencoe Challenge 2022 for Davie Jess.