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James Skehill: I felt guilty for Dad's death throughout my Galway career

An All-Ireland winner with Galway, James Skehill talks to OTB Sports.



James Skehill: I felt guilty f...
Hurling

James Skehill: I felt guilty for Dad's death throughout my Galway career

The All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper with Galway who has become an outstanding pundit on OTB Sports, James Skehill spoke to Arthur James O'Dea about his life in hurling. 

James Skehill measures out his life along fixed lines. Hurling. Family. Work. Place. The order has only recently become open to revision. “Hurling always went up there as first or maybe second on the list,” he insists. “When my wife Grace and I first started going out, she very quickly understood that this is what I do.” Nothing got in the way of hurling. You’re signed up for this, or you’re not.

The number of social events he skipped is unknowable. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and even funerals have had to carry on without him. Allowances stretched right across the board though. A Contract Manager for a construction firm in Galway, if Skehill was required to be in Dublin on a site by day, and back in Clarinbridge for a gym session by 6.00pm, his choice was readymade. “I would be gone out of Dublin by 3:00pm to make it on time,” he insists. "I did not care what would happen. I was gone. I would deal with the repercussions the day after.”

It helps, perhaps, that hurling has always run along vocational lines in his mind. If family and work regularly bore the brunt of his inter-county commitment, his place and the people within it were beneficiaries. When you can meaningfully contribute to Galway’s success and bring those people joy through hurling, Skehill believes the call cannot just be ignored. “There are those who say, ‘Oh, sure you have a choice, give up it if it is so hard,’” he remarks. “That f*cking galls me – it’s not that simple.”

Hurling. Family. Work. Place. They are all intertwined. “You only have a select period in your life where you can put yourself in a position to perform for that team,” he reasons, Joe Connolly the emblem of original ‘Galwayness’ that he believes the county’s hurlers must measure up to. “I cannot come back and do it again. So, for about the 14 years when I was there, I threw absolutely everything at it.”

This is not James Skehill’s story, but some stories he wanted to tell from that time.

James Skehill 5 August 2018; James Skehill prior to the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Clare | Sportsfile

I

Goalkeepers demand more of themselves than outfielders. Or, so they will say, at least. “You often hear people say, ‘keepers are a touch mad,” Skehill concedes, “and I would agree with that to an extent. Individualistic and ultra-independent, I’ve never seen a ‘keeper who isn’t confident in himself.” It is in the risks that they must take. For the duration of a match, their world exists only in what can be seen ahead of them. The sliotar in hand presents an opportunity but is an invading object when with the opposition.

“When a ball is coming in high then,” he explains, a chance to retrieve possession, “I’m not thinking of anything behind me. I’m going for that ball gung-ho.” Cork’s Patrick Horgan broke Skehill’s nose when the pair were U16s in 2004 as he attempted to double on the ball but connected primarily with the ‘keeper’s face. “Nose broken, face smashed, but I got up and played on,” he remembers. Fourteen years later, with Galway trailing Limerick by eight points in the All-Ireland final and looking for all the world beaten, he faced down a Seamus Flanagan shot with his body. This time his game was immediately over. “If I’m going out for a ball, the last thing I’m thinking of is getting hurt,” he insists, any other outlook ultimately unsustainable. “It is hard to explain…”

James Skehill 19 August 2018; James Skehill leaves the pitch due to injury during the All-Ireland final | Sportsfile

Skehill’s acceptance of the pain, his willingness to be hit with a sliotar when – and it is never a case of ‘if’ – needs be does lend credence to his belief that one is born to be a ‘keeper. Of course, his prodigious talent informed that outlook too. “He was an unbelievable minor,” Christy O’Connor recalls of watching Skehill from afar, “almost this belligerent individual that would come out and blow guys out of his way with this strength he had.” The kind of minor hurler that got people talking. Since around the age seven or eight, it had been decided that the temperamental James might be better off away from the other children standing in goal. “I was a bit on the wild side,” he allows, but the new position suited him. He would watch Davy Fitzgerald and Dónal Óg Cusack growing up and surmise that he could do what they were doing – maybe a little bit better even. Damien Fitzhenry though, he was different. Paraic Hession too. At one time the Dublin ‘keeper, Hession was a Cappataggle clubmate of Skehill’s growing up that he singles out as a pivotal influence in these early years.

A rough and ready child willing to throw himself at anything, when Skehill reached minor level his future as a senior player looked certain. “I just hit a period in my late teens where I stopped giving a sh*t even if I made a mistake,” he explains, the tendency to overthink his every involvement in a game one flaw that had to be wrinkled out. “At later stages of my career when coaches or psychologists asked me what I wanted, I would tell them that I wanted to get back to the way I thought about the game at 17, 18, 19 years of age. I played with complete freedom, and I was f*cking class.”

By the time he had graduated from Limerick IT in 2009, success was no stranger. An All-Ireland winner at minor and U21 level, the Fitzgibbon Cup had been won too. “When we were winning, I never really asked the question why,” he acknowledges now. Hurling had never come easy, but when Skehill found out what hard work was he would regret how easy-going he had been. “If I’d had an attitude where it was kill or be killed, maybe my career could have progressed quicker than it did.” Maybe he would not have spent little over a decade locked in a battle with Colm Callanan for the same spot on the Galway team. Maybe he would have won “All Stars for my club and be the best goalkeeper Galway ever had.” Maybe. It was not really complacency that stopped Skehill becoming the 'keeper he reckoned he could become.

In June 2009, his father Michael died suddenly. “We were farming,” Skehill recalls, “on a Sunday, I think. He was a fit man but had a shortness of breath that day.” Erring on the side of caution, Skehill contacted the Galway team doctor who instructed James to bring his father to a hospital. “So, I told my father, ‘Right, we’re going,'” he explains, “but he was stubborn and very headstrong, just like me – or I’m just like him, really.” Michael Skehill had been to the doctor recently and was given medication for what was diagnosed as a chest infection. Away to a Galway training camp in Johnstown House on Tuesday morning, James received a call that afternoon. “He was dead,” Skehill was told. “F*ck me. The shock was one thing, but the guilt was another. Up to about only a year ago, I blamed myself for it.”

When the curtain came down on James Skehill’s first act it very nearly did not rise again.

James Skehill 3 September 2006; James Skehill at the end of the All-Ireland minor final against Tipperary | Sportsfile

II

As life moved on James Skehill tried to keep pace. “Dad dies on the Tuesday, buried on the weekend, and I was back to training the following Tuesday,” he recalls, hurling a distraction as much as it had been his passion. He is adamant that a modern inter-county player who suffers a similar loss will receive adequate treatment. Although he blames no one, Skehill wishes the response following his father’s death had been as constructive. “I never recovered,” he admits, the deep sadness of the loss still obvious. “I’ve tried to have this conversation with people who are more professional in the line of psychology than I am, but all of this culminated in my becoming a bad player, a bad person and probably a bad son and brother for about a year-and-a-half to two years.”

Temporarily dropped from the Galway panel for disciplinary reasons, Skehill almost gave the game up altogether. Rugby had had a hold over him since secondary school and he had flirted with it again briefly in college. “It suited my aggression level too,” he admits. If rugby satisfied him in a sporting sense though, it did not ever move him elementally. Rugby. Family. Work. Place. That was never a flier, really. “My mother wouldn’t really have known anything about rugby,” he admits. “Everyone around the parish was asking me then if I want to play in front of 1,000 in an AIL game, or 80,000 in a hurling match. ‘Right, OK, fine’. That was the rugby then and it stopped there.”

Redeeming his inter-county career was not straight-forward though. There was still a journey to be taken. In his early 20s and aimless, Skehill required guidance. “Damien Joyce turned me around in 2011,” he remarks, facing the right direction now at least. “Mattie Kenny then was the first man to ever just tell me the truth. Managers will blow smoke up your hole trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. If it is good news or bad news, I just want the truth.” Coaching under Galway boss Anthony Cunningham, Kenny took a hands-on interest in Skehill. Determined not only to return but return a better goalkeeper, Skehill had reached out to Christy O’Connor. After agreeing to work one-on-one with the Galway native, it was Kenny who would regularly drive Skehill down to Ennis and back again so he could benefit from O’Connor’s coaching.

To say that Skehill’s interest and passion for hurling – but most particularly goalkeeping itself – was renewed is insufficient. Although he would never get back to the “f*cking class” ‘keeper he had been as a 17-year-old, working with O’Connor was transformative. A talent which at one point seemed innate could now be fully understood. “Christy thought outside the box in terms of drills,” Skehill explains. “Nine-tenths of goalkeepers just think of a shot as a shot. They don’t think about before or after, they don’t think about positioning, they don’t think of assessing the forwards to see if you can read his feet or body movement. Christy got you thinking about all that kind of stuff, and it had a snowball effect for me.” Widely renowned for his work with goalkeepers across the country, Skehill was not even the only ‘keeper in the Galway panel to have been shown the light by O’Connor.

III

In April 2007 Colm Callanan did his first session with Christy O’Connor, the pre-eminent goalkeeping coach. At the time it was a one-off appointment: 90 minutes at Doora-Barefield’s old pitch outside Ennis. Callanan was ready for anything but not prepared for this: O’Connor fed him into a blender and blitzed him. When the session was over he sat in his car for 20 minutes, unable to turn the ignition; immobilised. At last he drove to the nearest shop, bought two bottles of Lucozade and “absolutely necked” them. “I sat there for another ten minutes and then I drove home in sheer shock. I was thinking, ‘I never want to see that man again.’ I wasn’t used to that. It was a totally different level.”

- Denis Walsh, The Sunday Times

IV

Christy O’Connor laughs as those words are read back to him. “I absolutely reddened him,” he admits, Callanan not the first nor last to experience O’Connor’s intensity. “The sessions are designed to put lads under serious pressure, to take them out of their comfort zones and really put them in a position where they’re mentally and physically struggling with the intensity. It’s all about sharpness, good decision-making and skill execution in difficult scenarios.”

Removing what he can of a goalkeeper’s instinct for what is about to happen, O’Connor trains them to be ready for any eventuality. Callanan’s impressive string of saves against Tipperary in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final was evidence to him of a job well done. Recruited at various times by county set-ups looking for a competitive edge, the Clare native came to work exclusively with the Galway ‘keepers for a spell. It is not that often there will be two 'keepers of such distinction vying for the same position, but O'Connor was impressed at how Callanan and Skehill approached their obvious dilemma.

In the All-Ireland finals of 2012 and 2018, it was Skehill who started in goal. For the 2015 defeat to Kilkenny and, most memorably, the 2017 defeat of Waterford, the position was Callanan’s. Where some friction could have arisen, none ever did. “Only once do I remember being on a training camp where I wasn’t rooming with James,” Callanan explains. “We helped one another as much as we would have been inclined to help ourselves.” Clocking up the sessions, they reckon that they trained together with Galway well over 1,000 times. Without the other one of Skehill or Callanan could have a lot more championship appearances to their name. The way both men see it though, they were better ‘keepers for having to factor in the other’s ambition.

“Take 2015 when Colm got his All Star,” Skehill points out. “I pushed that man so hard in training that I could tell him in front of the group that I felt like I really got him that All Star. The same in 2017. I drove him to training early every day and I trained like a motherf*cker every day. He would have to match me or exceed me." O'Connor witnessed this ferocious competitiveness first-hand; enabled it, even. “It was always very important to us that everyone backed up each other 100%," he insists, "no matter who was the goalkeeper. James and Colm were absolutely brilliant in that regard, but so were the other Galway keepers who were there at different stages during those years – Fearghal Flannery, Aidan Ryan, Joe Keane, Gavin Lally. They were all top-class 'keepers but brilliant fellas.”

If Skehill takes a share of pride in Callanan's All Star, you can be certain he feels no less worthy of his All-Ireland medal for not having played in the 2017 final. "I went through all that sh*t, so I deserve that All-Ireland medal too," he states, "‘Oh, you didn’t play the 70 minutes, you don’t deserve a medal.’ F*ck that sh*t. That’s not my mindset at all.”

16 August 2015; James Skehill lifts goalkeeper Colm Callanan in celebration | Sportsfile

V

Back to that transformation of James Skehill though. His serendipitous introduction to O’Connor’s methods and intensity unlocked something within him. Whether hurling cultivated his obsessive, never-sit-still personality, or he has just always been a touch hyperactive and relentless, Skehill is not sure. Either way, when given a glimpse of what goalkeeping could be, he was never quite the same again. He who matures early lives in anticipation, reckoned German philosopher Theodor Adorno, Skehill the mannish minor emblematic of early maturation. Goalkeeping had come so easy for so many years that he never had much cause to do anything other than what he had always done. O’Connor’s sessions proved the fallacy of that outlook. They encouraged him to rigorously search in his own time for ways and means of self-improvement.

He ended up finding an unlikely source of inspiration in Tom Brady, the renowned NFL quarterback. “I’ve followed everything he has done,” Skehill insists with absolute certainty. A fan of American football from a very young age, it helped that some of his father’s family had emigrated to the US – Boston, Massachusetts, to be precise. “When you see Brady up close...” he starts, trailing off as he sinks into memories of watching him in his New England Patriots pomp.

Be it his longevity or remarkable success, Brady is an understandable role model. Neither of these is what really interests Skehill though. Hurling ‘keeper or NFL quarterback, Skehill scoured Brady’s technique in the hope of harvesting applicable insight. Whereas O’Connor’s sessions improved his shot-stopping no end, studying Brady enhanced what Skehill believed he could do with ball in hand. “Obviously, his is an arm movement and mine is a swing movement,” Skehill allows, “but the physics are similar. As a goalkeeper, I’m facing both teams in front of me too. There are backs and forwards moving in a multitude of directions, and I need to get a play going.” Somewhat apologetically, he tries to explain in greater detail the questions and scenarios he will run through before pucking the ball out:

How many steps do I need to hit the ball 60, 80 or 100 yards?

What does my starting position need to be depending on how far the ball needs to go?

How long will it take the ball to travel 80 yards?

If it is about three or four seconds, how fast can my centre-forward travel, and where do I need to put the ball for him?

If my player catches the ball, where is he going next? What’s the second phase?

Beyond American football, baseball’s Nomar Garciaparra aided Skehill’s understanding of distribution also. “The way he generated power as a smaller guy,” he marvels of the former Boston Red Sox batter. “It’s easy to look at a big hitter like Alex Rodriguez – big fella, big arms – and how he drives the ball. But Garciaparra generated power with his swing, and I could study that to learn how he did it.” Hours upon hours of time that was purportedly his own went toward improving his goalkeeping ability. It did not so much border on the obsessive as fall firmly within that category. Skehill was obsessed, still is a bit obsessed, but he does not really know any other way.

That question again: did becoming a Galway hurler make him who he has become, or did it simply facilitate inherent tendencies? When he broke onto the senior panel first in 2007, Ger Loughnane had only recently taken over. The aura was still there, even if Galway never would replicate what he had achieved with Clare. There was plenty of the fanatical Loughnane captured in Denis Walsh’s Revolution Years left too. “He brought in one of those baseball pitching machines,” Skehill recalls, bemused now that such a thing could have happened. “This was when we weren’t wearing helmets or cups like, and this thing would fire balls at you like a bullet. It would be aimed up at the top corner then and sure you wouldn’t have a hope of touching the thing!”

Such instances are the outliers though. They are curiosities that remain from thousands of near-identical sessions, the hours and hours of individual work one chooses to do on top of that. Inter-county is all encompassing. “You don’t need to be wearing that jersey in public for everyone to see it,” Skehill asserts. “That consumed me a bit, having to be perfect.”

10 January 2010; New England Patriot Quarterback Tom Brady | Alamy

*****

It could have been any Christmas Day. Hurling. Family. Work. Place. That is still the order of things. The championship is half-a-year away, but hurling never stops. If there are 365 days in a year to do things the right way, James Skehill wants to take full advantage of that.

“I would usually head over to the gym and do a session before the dinner,” he explains, aware how foreign it sounds to most people. “In my head I’m thinking, ‘Right, I’ll sweat out of me what I’m about to put into me.’ I wanted to neutralise the effect of Christmas Day.

“I hate asking, ‘What if…?’ It is a waste of time. I have what I have because I did what I did." In a freezing cold room lifting weights on his own, he is surprisingly at ease.

When the end did come, it came quickly.

"My daughter Sophie was small," he recalls, "and Grace was pregnant, so I asked myself, 'Right, where do I want to put my energy?'

Hurling. Family. Work. Place. 

"Hurling had always been up there but when the family grows larger, the priority becomes greater," he explains. "So, I said myself, 'F*ck it, let's go.'"

Just like that, at the age of 32, James Skehill the inter-county hurler was gone.

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Cappataggle Christy O'Connor Colm Callanan Damien Joyce Galway Hurling James Skehill Mattie Kenny

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