It’s been nearly a decade since I first started university in Stoke-on-Trent. I learnt a lot during my three years there but my increased knowledge came in the module of life more than anything my course actually taught me.
I didn’t really enjoy my stay too much. Most of my early days were spent feeling either depressed due to my lack of friends or anxious when I actually had the chance to make one. Things improved during my third year but I hadn’t built any long-lasting connections, probably because it took so long for me to find people who liked me.
However, one friend I made during my first day on campus is still close to me now. Bal has seen me at my worst and I’ve seen him at his. We’ve helped each other through a lot of tough times over the years. So it felt quite poignant to re-visit our old uni just before heading to the bet365 Stadium for Stoke’s Premier League match against Watford.
It was also Bal’s first live football game after our journey to see Wrexham in 2015 ended with me going blind from back-to-back migraines at Cheltenham railway station. If we just made the game this time, it would have been an achievement.
Re-visiting Staffs Uni
We made further progress than the hour spent in Cheltenham train station by reaching the Staffordshire University campus. I thought about my first time there. How lost I felt with my massive bag of luggage and laptop that I’d carried on the trains from Shropshire.
Bal and I both agreed that things felt strange. We knew where we were going now but we didn’t really belong there anymore. This was demonstrated by Bal’s effort to enter one of our old lecture buildings. Opening the door required an electronic student card these days. Luckily the guard who checked cards on the way into the student union bar wasn’t present and we headed into the Ember Lounge instead.
It looked smaller. I thought about the times when it would be packed out for football games. It felt a lot bigger then. Or perhaps I felt very small. One of my first experiences in there was with a bunch of lads I’d just met. There must have been 10 or 12 of them. I didn’t feel right being amongst them.
We were there to see Man United against Man City – the game where Michael Owen scored the winner in added time. It was an incredible match. 4-3 to United. But all I remember is negative thoughts.
There I was in a situation I’d always longed for. I never had friends who wanted to watch football with me and I was surrounded by people who were. Yet I found myself feeling so out of place and didn’t enjoy my experience at all. Looking back now I realise I had bad social anxiety at the time. But I would beat myself up for not fitting in and feel so depressed about it afterwards.
As Bal and I sat down to have a drink and some grub in the present day, we went through some better memories. A lacrosse player walked past us and I remembered my days of reporting for student radio every Wednesday. I’d found a group that I belonged in more. Although I still didn’t fully open up for a while. Again, because of social anxiety.
The fear of other people affects me to this day. I can be waiting by my bedroom door to hear if anyone is in the kitchen and stay locked in my room if there is. This also happened to me a lot in my first year of living in university halls. Over the years I’ve learnt more about it and how to cope. For example, I’m better when someone else is with me who I know well. It’s like the pressure is off me to be chatty and lead a conversation.
Having Bal with me allowed me to enjoy my return to Staffs Uni. We went back to our old accommodation (which felt surreal) and discovered a new stand in the middle of the courtyard with a ping-pong table attached. On it was a sticker which encouraged people to have a game with a passer-by if they had no one else to play with. I liked that. Nowadays I think there’s more awareness of people possibly feeling lonely, anxious or depressed. Especially at university. That’s a good thing and will hopefully get even better in time.
After our journey to recall our youth, Bal and I headed to Stoke’s ground. I’ve visited the stadium once before whilst I was studying and could still remember the way there alongside the canal adjacent to the River Trent. Back then the stadium was called the Britannia – which I prefer – and had a reputation for being bitterly cold. Particularly on midweek nights in the middle of winter.
When we went inside, however, I was very surprised to be relatively warm. There was no harsh wind from our seating position and conditions stayed dry during the contest. Bal was cold, to be fair, but he had only come out in a shirt and open jacket. Clearly this was his first football experience.
Along with the warmth in the stands came the warmth from the Stokies, which was evident even before the match. We had to get there pretty early as our tickets didn’t arrive in the post. I emailed the club before the game and they said we could grab some duplicate tickets from the Satellite Ticket Office.
Having been turned away at the gates in Dortmund, I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t get in. But thankfully everything went smoothly. I just told the lady about the situation and she printed off the tickets after confirming my address. Nice and easy.
We then headed to our seats in the Staffordshire University Boothen End (what else was it going to be called?) and got a feel for the club’s supporters. They’re a fantastic bunch, such a friendly and welcoming set of fans. The passion and noise they delivered throughout the whole game was really something. I loved it.
It’s no surprise with supporters like Stoke’s that the team mascot is equally as jovial. Before the game, ‘Pottermus’ was strutting along the sidelines and stirring the crowd up. Then when the big tunes kicked in he started strutting his stuff on the pitch.
I don’t think I’ve seen a mascot with such character before. He seemed to have free rein to go anywhere he wanted and do anything he wanted as well. I watched him bust some moves to Eminem in the centre circle and couldn’t take my eyes off him. Apparently he’s also got a wife called Pottermiss who’s also quite boisterous.
Another goalless draw
Unfortunately, all that pre-match build-up was as good as things got. The game provided no goals, unbelievable when you factor in both teams having the worst defensive records in the Premier League but understandable when you see the lack of clinical cutting edge in the final third.
Debutant Gerard Deulofeu was the game’s brightest spark. The man on-loan from Barcelona looked impressive on the wing for Watford and carved open their best opportunities. For Stoke, Ryan Shawcross did a great job of stopping Troy Deeney and produced a fantastic block from Abdoulaye Doucoure’s shot when he had the goal at his mercy. Meanwhile, Xherdan Shaqiri should have done better when clean through on goal as he smashed a shot straight at Watford goalie Orestis Karnezis.
It means it’s the second goalless draw out of three games for High Stress Therapy so far this year and the second consecutive 0-0 for me, personally, after listening to Wrexham play out a stalemate against Gateshead the night before. Considering I witnessed Luis Suarez score twice on my other visit to Stoke – his first goal being a beautiful curling shot – this was quite a comedown.
Joe Allen skied a volley
Bal asked me for a betting tip before the game and I told him to try Joe Allen as the first goalscorer. I thought it had a chance. With 10/1 odds, it wasn’t the worst pick. The Welshman could have bagged it as well when he set himself up for a volley in the box. We were behind the goal as he chested down Maxim Choupo-Moting’s ball in. My heart skipped a beat. Then he smashed the ball high over the bar and left me wondering why I didn’t suggest another 10/1 shout for there to be no goalscorer.
I really like Stoke City. It’s a great club to visit and their fans always turn up in high numbers. Being sat right behind the goal was an interesting experience. Although it was difficult to keep up with play at times, you can get a real close-up encounter with some of the Premier League’s famous players. It’s just a shame we never got to see the net bulge as it would have capped a really good day out.
It hasn’t deterred Bal too much though. He suggested going to another game in the future with his only condition being that it takes place in April or May. And as snow fell on the way back to the train station, I knew he wasn’t joking.
Stoke City 0 – 0 Watford
Ground rating: 7/10