BY EDMUND BRACK
Paul Kalambayi says that it is a privilege to be close to reaching a century of appearances for AFC Wimbledon.
The defender is closing in on his 100th Dons first-team game in all competitions, taking his tally to 96 in the 1-0 win over Grimsby Town last weekend.
Kalambayi progressed through the club’s academy after he joined from Brentford and made his first team debut under Neal Ardley in 2017, replacing Callum Kennedy for the final stages of AFC Wimbledon’s 4-3 EFL Trophy win over Barnet.
The 23-year-old has gone on to feature under every manager that has held a permanent position as Wimbledon boss and become a key figure in Johnnie Jackson’s side in League Two. He could hit his century against Newport County on Boxing Day.
“It’s been a non-stop learning experience that is still ongoing,” Kalambayi told the South London Press.
“I have seen loads of players come and go. I have learned from players who have got promotions, with the likes of Adebayo Akinfenwa and Paul Robinson, and I have taken bits from every one of them. It’s helped me become the player that I am now.
“I have seen the club change with different managers and different relegation battles.
“It means a lot to be making my 100th appearance. It’s your first ever club – you love it.
“To know that I would have soon represented the club for 100 games is a privilege.”
This is Kalambayi’s longest run of consecutive league games since he started the first nine matches in the 2019-20 season under Wally Downes.
“I’m really enjoying my football,” said the Dulwich-born centre-back. “I have been unlucky with injuries in every season but without them you don’t become the player you are.
“My injuries have made me hungrier to perform well. I have been in three different relegation battles, and you learn a lot from continuously failing – it was a mental challenge.
“It’s taught me a lot about dealing with pressure and expectations. I’m using those experiences to help the team now.”
The Dons recorded their fourth straight clean sheet in the league on Saturday, with the back four of Kalambayi, Ryley Towler, Huseyin Biler and Jack Currie limiting Grimsby to just one shot on target in the 90 minutes.
Kalambayi, 23, was the oldest member of the backline in the previous wins against Tranmere and Grimsby. His partnership with Bristol City loanee Towler has kept ex-Millwall captain Alex Pearce out of the side following his return from injury.
“I have been really impressed with Ryley,” said Kalambayi. “He’s versatile. I really like playing with him. We have a good partnership going on. He’s a great player.
“I’m a leader, so I encourage the backline a lot.
“We cover each other quite well. I know if something goes wrong, Ryley will be there. And he knows that I’ll be there if something goes wrong for him.”
Jackson recruited Pearce, who played in the Premier League with Reading and has seven international caps with the Republic of Ireland to his name, over the summer to bring experience into a young squad which had just suffered relegation from League One.
“He’s always giving details, and these things are important,” said Kalambayi. “It’s guidance – you need it. The players who have played at a higher level challenge you, because they always want you to be the best.
“If I give the ball away in training, Pearcy will be on to me and saying: ‘Come on PK, you’re better than this’. But this is what you want to hear. You don’t want to give the ball away and think it’s alright because nobody has said anything.”
Kalambayi has suffered a series of injuries and missed close to three months last season with a medial collateral ligament (MCL) knee injury.
“You can go two ways about it,” he said. “You can either feel sorry for yourself and blame the whole world thinking: ‘Why me, why me?’ Or you can toughen up and face the challenge. You then become a stronger player, physically and mentally. Now, I feel great.”
The Dons are unbeaten in their previous seven outings in League Two and there is a four point gap to the play-off spots.
“I want to stay in the top half of the league,” said Kalambayi. “Come January or February, see where we are and if we can dare to dream.
“I will do everything I can to be in that top seven. My target is for us to be in the play-offs.”
PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD