After the season we’ve just had and the clear and obvious difficulties surrounding the club’s financial position, I didn’t have much hope about anything going into the summer.
My mindset was that we’d lose the majority of players out of contract and have no money to replace any of them. But, for some reason, I did have an inkling of optimism regarding the future of Josh Laurent. I genuinely thought he’d sign a new deal.
That optimism was boosted further when Paul Ince was made permanent manager (after Laurent’s comments about being more likely to sign a deal if Ince stayed on as gaffer) and, then, news broke that his best bud Andy Yiadom was on the verge of signing a new deal.
After that epic 4-4 draw Josh Laurent told me he’s got a big decision to make this summer - he said he’s enjoying his football now more than any stage of his career previously and he’s more likely to stay if Paul Ince signs a deal to stay as manager for next season.— Tim Dellor (@TimDellor) April 18, 2022
Looking back now though, that was me thinking with my heart over my head and expecting Laurent to do the same. So when the rumours started circling that Laurent had agreed a deal with Stoke City, at first I felt a little bit let down.
But then, after a little while, I realised I had no right to feel like that, this is ultimately a career for Laurent, and there are points within any career when you have to think with your head over your heart.
Laurent is about to come into his prime years and, understandably, he will want to spend them at the highest level possible. Stoke, among 22 other team in the Championship, have a better chance at reaching a higher level than us at the moment.
Rather than bemoan the fact he’s leaving - which is what I’ve done over and over in my head since the news about him leaving first broke - let’s have a look at the two years service Josh has provided us.
Josh joined in the shambolic summer of 2020 when Veljko Paunovic arrived two weeks before the season started and was announced as manager before the departure of his predecessor Mark Bowen (who is now back at the club as head of footballing operations was announced.
It was Bowen who brought Josh to the club on a free from Shrewsbury Town, which turned out to be one of the shrewdest bits of business by the club in recent years. Among signings such as Sone Aluko and George Puscas for more than £7 million each and Sam Baldock for £5 million, sensible and ‘Reading-like’ bits of business have been very, very hard to come by. But Laurent was certainly one of those.
His performances on the pitch, particularly in his first season, magnified just how much of a bargain we got with him. He was imperious, adding the energy, aggression and quality in central midfield that we’d been missing since the departure of Danny Williams. He was an integral part of that team that narrowly missed out on the play offs.
Although he didn’t get on the score sheet much or get an abundance of assists, he dragged us through games at times with his sheer presence on the pitch. He could drive through midfield and turn defence into attack in an instant. He was a joy to watch in that first season.
Like many of his counterparts, his performance levels dropped last season. He was nowhere near the player we saw in the season prior. The injury crisis didn’t help him much I have to say, with him getting thrown around a lot and never really settling into one position.
He played centre back, the deepest of a three in midfield, part of a double pivot and even as a number 10 later on in the season under Ince.
Because of this I don’t think he ever got into full flow like he did in his first season. However, he still found room to pop up with a some vital moments in our survival charge - most notably a worldie winner against Blackburn Rovers and a vitally important late equaliser at Barnsley - and never, ever shirked away from any responsibility.
He always fronted up to the media after losses (of which there were a lot last time out) and never made excuses when others perhaps did. By his own admissions, for large periods of last campaign he wasn't good enough, but he took that pressure on his shoulders and ended up playing a crucial role in our run to surviving relegation.
Not only was he a big presence for us on the pitch, you could tell off the pitch he was a really big part of the squad. He was adored by the fans, and you could tell that adoration was felt by his team mates and the backroom staff too.
From the moment he walked through the door, he bought into Reading and wanted to integrate himself firmly into the fabric of the club and the hearts of the fans. I don’t think a player can ever love a club or a set of fans more than the fans love the club or love a player (at the end of the day, it’s a job for players and it’s a passion for fans) but Josh got pretty close.
The love we had for him was reciprocated and there’s a still a tiny bit of me that thinks, out of hope more than expectation I must admit, that if we weren’t in the financial troubles we are in, he would’ve signed a new deal no problem.
But, deep down I think we all knew this was going to happen. Laurent was always going to have clubs interested in and offers to consider, and you just cannot blame him for choosing to jump ship.
One thing that doesn’t make any of this easier too is that Laurent will be lining up alongside Lewis Baker in midfield next season - that’s just rubbing salt into the already gaping wounds.
Laurent will be a big, big miss. Not just on the pitch, but off it too. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to replace him, and his departure just makes me even more worried for the season to come.