By Chris Slavin
Having made 23 appearances in all competitions, scored his first senior goal, and earned an international call-up for Albania, it's certainly been a breakthrough season for Egli Kaja.
An extensive interview with the 20-year-old midfielder was published in Saturday's programme for the Oldham game and this is reproduced in full below.
Despite making his first-team debut as long ago as 26 September 2015, as a substitute in a 2–0 defeat at Luton Town, Egli feels it is only now that he's ready to make an impact at first-team level.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs since I made my debut, but that's part and parcel of trying to become a regular first-team player," said Egli. "Everyone progresses at different rates. For some young players, it may take three or four years to get games for the first team, but for others it may take just one season. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster for me, but I've enjoyed it.
"In the season before last I picked up a lot of different injuries. Every time I tried to get fit I kept on picking up slight injuries and I'd be out for two weeks, but last season I did everything I could before and after games to make sure that didn't happen. Last season I had quite a strong season with the Development Squad, but I didn't play so much for the first team. I worked really hard during pre-season so that I could come back flying, and the manager trusted me enough to play me in cup games at the start of this season.
"In previous seasons I'd not trained as well, but in training with the first team this season I've started to do a lot better. It was amazing to score my first goal at Barnet in the Checkatrade Trophy. As soon as the ball fell to me, I thought, 'Just get it in!' It was a relief as I'd been waiting to get my first goal – and so had other people! I was more relaxed after that and I managed to get another against Tottenham's U21s. I enjoyed that, and I just want to get one in the league now. I still have a lot to work on. I want to keep improving my game and get more first-team opportunities."
Now aged 20, Egli's progress has resulted in a call-up for his native Albania. A passport problem stopped him from appearing for the Albania U21s when he was called up earlier this season, but that is likely to change soon – and there could even be a possibility of him making the senior team.
"I got officially called up in autumn last year, but I didn't have my papers sorted", Egli recalled. "It was frustrating, but there's a double-header against Spain, plus a match against Estonia, in September. They are Euro U21 qualifiers, and it would be good to play in those games. The U21 manager has been messaging me and he wants me to play. I just need to go over there after this season is over and get my passport sorted. When I spoke to the coach, he told me it's also possible I could play in a first-team friendly. I'll just have to see how it goes. I'll be looking to play in official games for the U21s, and then see if I can break into the senior team. As my parents were born there, it would be a dream to play for Albania."
Egli joined AFC Wimbledon as an 11-year-old, so he has been at the club now for almost a decade. It is not surprising that the club means a lot to him, especially as he enjoyed so much success during his rise through the ranks. Spotted by former Dons youth coach Tony Wilson, Egli was subsequently part of an AFC Wimbledon youth squad that became national champions at Pride Park in 2010. Four years later, he helped the Dons to lift the London Senior Cup by beating Metropolitan Police at Imber Court, and in 2015 he was rewarded with his first professional contract.
"Tony Wilson spotted me when I was playing in a local seven-a-side tournament. I'd been at Kingstonian and on trial at Chelsea for two weeks, but I went on trial at Wimbledon at around the same time, and I've been here ever since. It all seems to have gone very quickly. I remember being a part of a youth team that were unbeaten in three years. Ryan Sweeney was also in that team, and I think I'm the last one left here from that group.
"I remember scoring a volley in the semi-final of the London Senior Cup [against Cray Valley Paper Mills], and I got picked for the final. As a 16-year-old I was nervous, but I also felt confident because the manager, Shaun North, had selected me.
"My first-team debut came against Luton Town, a few days after I'd played for the Development Squad at Kenilworth Road. After playing well in that game I ended up on the bench for the first team. We went down to ten men, and they scored just before I came on. I think I crossed one and Bayo hit the bar. They were exciting times for me. I was disappointed that we lost, but it was great for me to make my debut.
"Mark Robinson has been a massive influence on my career. When I was 15, Robbo invited me to train with the U18s on a Friday. I would have a half-day at school on a Friday, and then go training in the afternoon. It was different because the older lads were a lot more physical than me. Robbo has been huge in my career – he's helped improve my technical ability, including using my left foot, passing and other aspects. I've been close friends with Robbo off the pitch too, and he's played a massive part in my development."
Egli played in a variety of different attacking roles during his rise through the ranks, but he believes that the right-sided midfield role now suits his strengths really well.
"The manager and all the staff have helped me, particularly with my positioning. It's been mainly about the tactical side of games, so that I can get on the ball and make things happen. It's about me getting into the areas where I can affect the game and make best use my attributes, for example my pace, and things like that. But I'm aware that I still have plenty to work on.
"When I was younger, I played in a lot of different positions, including on the left flank, and as a centre-forward or as a No.10. In the last few years I've been moulded into playing on the right side, as that's where the manager sees me doing best. I've enjoyed it, and I do see myself playing there in the future. I can also play on the left, but it depends on how the game is going. I've enjoyed playing on the right. I've been getting crosses in, which the manager wants me to do, and I just want to keep improving my game as much as I can."
With Wimbledon having been such a big part of his life so far, Egli would love an opportunity to be involved in the future of the club.
"When I first joined Wimbledon I didn't fully understand the history of the club, but I'm a lot more aware of it now. It's an incredible story – it's unique, and there's no other club like it. I've enjoyed my time here, and hopefully I can continue to be a part of it. It's an exciting time to be at the club, especially with the new stadium on its way – playing the first match there will be unbelievable."
If Egli can build on his season of promise, there is every chance that we could see him running out at Plough Lane in the future.