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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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New Carlisle Utd recruit Gjokaj aiming to help stem flow of 'stupid' goals

‘That is the past,” says Valentin Gjokaj, a 19-year-old footballer with much to look forward to. Carlisle United’s newest loanee is a Swiss defender rich in promise and who has a yearning to reward his parents for the important but hard road they have taken.

Valentin Gjokaj photo
Valentin Gjokaj

Gjokaj accepts he would not be here, pushing on, without “the past”, which in his case is the decision of his mother and father to leave their home in Kosovo during the dreadful civil war that scarred that land in the early 1990s.

They re-settled in Switzerland, an infinitely safer place, in which 19-year-old Gjokaj was born and was later able to launch a football career which may take an important step here at Carlisle.

No monosyllabic teenager, this inquisitive centre-half – on loan from Derby – says the full awfulness of what his parents saw has not been spelled out to him in all its detail, but he knows enough about the environment they had to flee.

“They told me, but not that much,” he says. “They told me how it was, that it was very scary, very dangerous to live there.

“But the most things I get for myself, from research on the internet, in school as well, in history. I learned about what was there. But that’s past now, I’m happy they could move to Switzerland so they could get a better life there. And I hope I can help them as well get a better life now.”

Despite his Albanian ancestry Gjokaj regards himself as Swiss, which will make him the first player from that country to represent United when his debut comes, between now and January 2. Among the things that motivate him to succeed in English football are the fantasies he was encouraged to have by his father, from an early age, in an upbringing that was allowed to be happy because of the decision his parents had earlier taken.

“It is a big step to leave my family and play football in England, but it was always my dream,” he says, speaking of the moment this summer when he signed for the Rams, from FC Lucerne.

“My dad told me when I was young ‘you’re going to play in England’. Later, when I was 17 or 18, my agent, my dad and my manager said they thought the English league would be perfect for me because I’m a big lad.

“I thought it was going to be harder to leave my family but it’s not. I saw them twice in the last three months, it’s not a problem. There are still the lads and friends here. Football makes it easier for you.”

In other words, the camaraderie of the dressing room has, as usual, enabled a newcomer to be pulled into a new environment and not feel like he is isolated. This is one of football’s big strengths and it is at work again now Gjokaj has joined up with the Blues.

Last Friday he met his new colleagues on the team bus, as they travelled to Yeovil, where the defender was an unused sub in Carlisle's 3-1 win. His first proper training session was this Monday and the settling-in period is now firmly under way.

“The lads and staff have been really good to me, they welcome me and I’m happy with this,” he says.

“They are good lads, good players. On Saturday it was heavy conditions and the pitch wasn’t that good but they did well in the game. The main thing I saw was that they were a team on the pitch. If that is mostly the case then things will go well. I’m glad they won.”

Briefed, he says, by Greg Abbott to help stem the flow of “stupid” goals into Carlisle’s net, he brings only a few months of experience in Derby’s Under-21 team to United’s plight, but also the borrowed wisdom of a player who is fondly remembered at Brunton Park.

“Richard Keogh told me it’s a good club and it would be a good step for me to go there and get first-team experience,” he says. “He gave me some advice on how it is here, told me not to be scared, that there are good players. I can see that he is right.

“He is a good lad, a very good player, and in training all the time helps the young lads. He is the leader in the team and every time I sit on the bench I look to how he plays and learn a lot. I can go and ask him anything and he is always there for me and every player.”

Carlisle’s supporters never required much encouragement to think approving thoughts of Keogh, a genuine crowd-pleaser during his two seasons with the Blues from 2008 to 2010. That, though, is “the past”, as Gjokaj would say.

At United this term, and especially during this hard autumn, there is a blank canvas for new heroes. There is no way of knowing whether or how soon Gjokaj will be such a man – Carlisle have yet to confirm whether he’s allowed to play for them in the FA Cup tie against Bournemouth this weekend – but his desire to succeed comes across strongly in conversation.

Hear him, for instance, on his persistent attempt to get on the path to England. “I was [on trial] at Blackburn twice and was close to signing but I got injured with my knee so they lost interest. Then I was at Newcastle for three days and they were interested in me.

“They came to Switzerland to watch a game but we played the game very bad. So they lost their interest. But it wasn’t my thing to give up. I worked hard and then heard about Derby. When I came I was excited, nervous, but the friendlies went well and when the gaffer [Nigel Clough] told me he wanted to sign me, it was the best moment of my life.”

Just the one, brief first-team appearance, against Sheffield Wednesday, followed that thrilling day in July, hence the decision to send him to Carlisle in the hope that life in League One will speed up his progress and the potential which Clough clearly believes is there in spades.

“The gaffer told me he wanted me to come back as a stronger, better player, then maybe I get the chance to play for Derby,” he says. “This loan here in Carlisle is perfect.

“League One I know is more strong, quicker, more physical. In the Derby Under-21 team they are not like grown-up people, they are 15 or 16 years and there is more play. Here it is more physical. That is another step for me to know how the English game is.”

Gjokaj is, though, keen to stress that he is no shrinking violet when it comes to defending. At 6ft 2in he looks imposing and knows that appearances must not be deceptive when he comes to line up for United.

“The manager told me they have conceded stupid goals from defending, and he needs someone in the defending who attacks the ball, doesn’t make it too easy for the strikers to score goals,” he says. “I’m a big lad so that’s just positive for me.

“I’m good on my feet, I can play football, I can pass, I’m not one who every time likes to smash the ball. But if I have to do it I do it. I’m an aggressive lad, a good header. I go with 100 per cent in every challenge, give my best in Carlisle and hope to help the team.

“I know I have to impress in quick time. This helps me to show the manager I’m a good player. He [Abbott] told me about the results and said a lot of players are injured, but when I came here the players were in a good mood, looking forward to the next game and training session. Results will come, luck will change.”

In 20 minutes of talking he strikes you as more interesting than your average loan signing, partly because he isn’t shy about spelling out what he wants to do, where he wants to go.

“I hope one day to play in the Premier League,” he says. “That is the big dream. But I’m still young, I have enough time. The first step to play in the Championship for Derby would be perfect. But I am here at Carlisle and very happy. I hope I can get my minutes to play and help the team climb up the table.”

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