Alan on top form enjoying the sponsor’s generosity on the eve of St Patrick’s Day at last month’s British Press Awards
Subbing the Press Gazette obituaries page isn’t always the depressing, heart-wrenching experience you might expect. Thankfully, it tends to feature journalists who have lived long and full lives, packed with achievements and experiences. Certainly Alan Skehan never complained about subbing it. But this week it will make especially sad reading for all of us at Press Gazette – and indeed everyone at Quantum Business Media – because Alan was only 27 when he died last week.
He was at a family dinner in Edinburgh on the eve of his sisterinlaw’s wedding when he was taken ill and could not be revived.
It was a life not even half-lived. This obit should be appearing in 50, 60 years’ time. Not now.
James Alan Skehan was born on New Year’s Eve 1976 in Dublin.
He grew up in the Clontarf district of the city and attended Belvedere College and Bruce College. He excelled at sport, especially rugby, representing Belvedere in Leinster junior and senior cups. He reached an All Ireland Rugby Union Final (under-20s) after winning the Leinster title with Clontarf RFC. He also won championships at Gaelic football and water polo. In 1996 he began studying at St Mary’s University College, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, graduating in 1999 in sports science and English.
He was part of the rugby squad that took the BUSA Championship in 1999. It was while at St Mary’s that Alan met fellow student Anna Parsons, whom he would marry in July 2003.
Alan joined the Surrey Herald series as a reporter in September 1999 and took a block-release NCTJ course at Highbury College, Portsmouth. He was part of the team that was shortlisted in the Front Page of the Year category at the 2001 Regional Press Awards.
In January 2001 he was appointed sports editor at the Informer News Group and in May 2002 became a sub-editor at the North Surrey and London Newspaper Group in Chertsey.
Alan was the last candidate I interviewed for the job of Press Gazette sub-editor in December 2002. I thought I had perfected my interviewing technique but had reckoned without a nervous Irishman who never used one word when three-dozen were available.
I must have managed to ask him just two questions.
“He didn’t say much,” he confided to his brother-in-law James Parsons. “So I thought I’d better keep talking.” It was thought best to get Alan in for a shift. “I subbed a news page and you used it in the magazine – virtually unchanged,” he recalled recently. “And I was crap back then.” Alan was never crap. By the time he was cruelly taken from us he certainly knew what he was doing. He had become a cracking good young sub whose career was heading very much in the right direction.
Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves says: “Alan was already a bloody good journalist and was on his way to becoming an excellent one.
He’d only very narrowly missed out on getting the extremely demanding job of Press Gazette’s chief sub, which at his age was quite some achievement. He was talented and bursting with ideas.
“He was also one of those characters that really lifted the mood of a hard-pressed team. When stress levels rose, you’d find yourself wandering over to his desk for a banter on just about anything – football, music, the virtues or otherwise of various root vegetables – or to hear his theory on why his fecking computer kept crashing or his (not always complimentary) take on the latest magazine launch. We’ll miss him in many, many ways.”
Press Gazette readers may recall that, just 16 months ago, this magazine was far less substantial. Pagination grew markedly at around the time Alan joined and the workload for the subs increased sharply. Despite a long daily commute from home near Staines to Croydon, Alan worked late when he knew it was required. Not for extra money, of course – there was none of that.
Alan brought massive enthusiasm, new ideas and a mischievous sense of humour to Press Gazette. He was enormously pleased to see a reader’s letter noting the increased “nipple count” in the magazine. When Alan selected the images for the Expert Eye page there was always a lot of flesh to be seen – he could find it in even the dullest business magazines.
At lunchtimes Alan found Croydon’s many “trendy” new bars a disappointment. Who can forget his dismay at being told he would have to eat mustard mash with his bangers rather than plain mash? After that we restricted ourselves to proper pubs, like the Royal Standard, serving shepherd’s pie and Guinness.
When freelance journalist Garth Gibbs was told of Alan’s death, he spoke of his sadness at the loss of such a “charming young man”. Many people warmed to his charm. Just weeks after joining PG, Alan was spotted in the Met Bar following an awards do. He was in a small but select group: on one side of him stood Sun editor Rebekah Wade and husband Ross Kemp, the actor; on the other, former Sun editor Stuart Higgins. I can’t begin to imagine what tales he was telling them. The next day, holding his sore head in his hands, he told us quietly: “I think I invited Stuart Higgins to my wedding.”
He would use his famous charm to chase copy. “The lovely Julie Tomlin, would the diary be in yet?” he would ask of the features editor most Thursday afternoons, or, when a little impatient, “The very lovely Julie Tomlinâ€¦” These are memories of small details of life on a small magazine in a Croydon office block, and may have little meaning for those in the wider journalistic world. But these small details help explain, I hope, how Alan touched us all.
When I last spoke to Alan, on Friday, 2 April, he was happy, there was a spring in his step and he was looking to the future. He revealed he had just negotiated a pay rise with the editor. What’s more, Ireland had recently beaten England at rugby (was there a bar in Richmond and Twickenham that Alan didn’t visit that weekend?), had won the Triple Crown and France had then beaten England. (If 7-to-1 shot Made in Japan had won the 3.20 at Aintree on Thursday he would have been even happier.) There’s no doubt that in time Alan would have realised his ambition to become a sports sub on a national newspaper. He was already working Saturday shifts for the Sportsbeat agency and The Non-League Paper. He loved being among sports journalists at events such as the British Press Awards and the Sports Journalists’ Association awards. He was thrilled to have been present to see The Mail on Sunday’s Joe Melling named SJA Sports News Reporter of the Year last month. It’s a tragedy that Alan didn’t live to read Joe’s obit in last week’s Press Gazette.
Alan is survived by his widow Anna, parents Jimmy and Anne, and sisters Jennifer, Katherine and Hannah.
His funeral was due to take place on Thursday at the Church at St Mary’s University College, Strawberry Hill, where he and Anna were married last summer. Family flowers only were requested.
Donations are being made to the St Patrick’s Guild, an adoption society in his native Dublin.
Tony Berry, chief sub, Press Gazette
Richard Parsons was editor of the Surrey Herald series when Alan joined the paper. He writes: “I recognised the qualities that later marked Alan out as a promising young journalist, but I did not trust myself to make that judgement on my own. The reason was quite simple: Alan was destined to be my son-in-law and he had to prove himself in his own right.
“He was interviewed and given the seal of approval by my news editor at the time. She was quite unaware of the connection. It was some time later, by which time he had already begun to make his mark, that it became generally known.
“Alan always had to work that little bit harder than his contemporaries to avoid accusations of patronage, and it must have come as a considerable relief to him when he was promoted to another office as sports editor of the Informer series. He was free to show others he could distinguish himself and – as Tony Berry’s words suggest – he certainly went on to do that.”
Tony Berry, chief sub, Press Gazette