Jamie Skinner’s friends relive tragic day

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For most people who only know him from the pages of a newspaper, Jamie Skinner is the boy in a Hearts top who died playing football.

That’s not how his friends and family knew him, and they don’t want Jamie remembered that way, either.

Max Mantle, Rebecca Pitbladdo, Karen Greechan, Ryan Greechan, Conor Greechan and Jamie Hunter. Picture: Scott Taylor

Max Mantle, Rebecca Pitbladdo, Karen Greechan, Ryan Greechan, Conor Greechan and Jamie Hunter. Picture: Scott Taylor

Sitting around the kitchen table in his cousin Karen Geechan’s house, his cousins, friends and schoolmates talk about a boy with “the biggest smile ever”, who was athletic, funny and caring.

Talking about the events of the terrible day Jamie collapsed and died of a cardiac arrest on the football pitch is still harrowing, months later.

Often they have to pause to catch their breath, let the tears flow and hold each other close for comfort.

But they push through the tears to tell Jamie’s story because they desperately want to build a positive legacy for the boy they love so much, through the Jamie Skinner Foundation’s campaign to help prevent more tragedies like his.

“I could talk for hours,” says Karen, whose sons Conor and Ryan were among Jamie’s closest friends. “I’d never stop.”

At times, the pain is as raw as on the day he died. Several times, his cousins find it too difficult to continue. Conor’s voice cracks as he remembers how his father took a phone call from Karen while driving him to a football match.

“It sounded like she was crying, but trying to hold it in. My dad went outside of the car so I couldn’t hear.”

Conor’s parents admit they have often struggled themselves in the months since Jamie’s death, wondering whether to try and shield their children from the turmoil to help them move on. In the moments after finding out, that was Karen’s instinct – she told Conor’s father not to tell him until after the game, so that he could still play.

“When we got to the game, he just told me to enjoy myself and play the best I can,” says Conor, 15.

“By where all the cars were parked, there was a big field, and we went into the middle of it, away from everyone else. My brother was there too, and he brought us both together, and said ‘I’ve got something to tell you’.

“He took a while to say it, but eventually he told us, ‘Your cousin Jamie had a heart attack while playing football. He died.’ I couldn’t stop crying.

“We went back to the car and drove to the hospital. We were crying the whole way down. I went on my phone and everyone on Facebook was writing ‘RIP Jamie’. I was probably the last to find out about it.”

“My mum was waiting outside the hospital. She hugged me, and we couldn’t stop crying. My mum asked me if I wanted to go see him, and I said, ‘I have to. I really want to see him’.”

Karen says her son “came into the room and just fell to his knees”, telling his cousin: “Jamie get up, Jamie get up. Come on pal, I love you.”

Then came what they all call “the worst Christmas ever”, just three days after Jamie’s death.

There were no early morning footsteps down the stairs to check for presents under the tree. Karen couldn’t get the kids out of bed.

“I went up to them at half nine or ten o’clock, and I said, ‘Come on guys, you have to open your presents’. And they said, ‘We don’t want presents. We don’t want to do Christmas’,” says Karen.

“Their dad had made Christmas dinner, but they wouldn’t eat anything.

“I said that Jamie wouldn’t want that, because he loved Christmas. We managed to get through that day somehow.”

If there is one thing that has helped make the hardest days easier since his death, it is the support from friends, neighbours and total strangers who have come out in their drove to honour Jamie.

From the first rain-soaked candlelit vigil in Inch Park on the day they said goodbye to him in hospital, through the walk to Arthur’s Seat attended by scores of people, to the many charity football matches in Jamie’s name, the depth of empathy for Jamie’s family has never been in doubt.

But it’s the tributes from his friends, whose voices aren’t often heard but who knew him as well as anyone, that are the most poignant.

Max Mantle, 15, who played football with Jamie in primary school and was a classmate at Liberton High, has four words at the ready to describe his friend’s passions: “Football, chicken and girls – and himself.” Jamie was never shy about taking a selfie. “He would say, ‘I’m a tank’ and stuff, and we would say, ‘We know!’ No-one wanted to get on the wrong side of Jamie.”

But being proud of his physique didn’t make Jamie arrogant or superior.

“He wouldn’t think about himself,” says Conor.

“He was always making sure everyone else was all right. If someone was feeling down, he was the first one to go over, and he would be cheering them up just like that, telling jokes.

“He was really funny.”

It’s a rare ability in a teenager to be able to bridge the yawning gap between the different cliques that exist in the school canteen, but Jamie had it.

“There would be different friend groups at tables in school, but Jamie would get on with everyone no matter what they liked, who they were, Jamie would always get on with everyone,” says Max.

Their generation lives life in the glare of a smart phone screen, and Jamie was no different.

When he wasn’t playing football or hanging out with friends, says Max, “he was always slagging me on Facebook”.

It was on social media that most of the tributes from friends and classmates were posted.

“There was a Facebook page called ‘RIP Jamie Skinner the angel’ and that got 12,000 likes within a day,” Max says. “And I thought, if one laddie can get that amount of likes in a day, it just shows how much everyone cares about him.”

Rebecca Pitbladdo, 15, another cousin and close friend of Jamie’s, says: “It was amazing to see that someone who was part of our family could bring in so much support after something so tragic. It was breathtaking.”

Buoyed by the support they received, less than a year after his death Jamie’s family are turning their pain into a positive legacy.

If even one person has their life saved by a defibrillator bought with money raised in Jamie’s name, then that’s something they can hold on to.

“It keeps not just the memory of Jamie alive, but it gives us something that we’re working towards in Jamie’s name,” says Max.

“I don’t want to use the word compensate, because you can’t compensate for Jamie’s death, but it’s making sure that it doesn’t happen to other people.”

The family hope to take their case to the Scottish Parliament and raise awareness nationally of the need for defibrillators in public buildings and sports facilities.

“I think it have a huge impact,” says Conor. “It could save thousands of lives.

“We’ve got so much planned, and we’ve got support from loads of big names, including the Evening News.

“This is only the start.”

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