Joe Sheerin playing for AFC Wimbledon against Chipestead in the Combined Counties League Premier Division. London, August 2002.

Joe Sheerin: ‘I’m not proud of having the shortest Prem career ever’

Wimbledon has been a constant theme in Joe Sheerin’s life.

He was raised near the club’s famous Plough Lane ground, he made his only Chelsea appearance against the Dons and he played a prominent part in AFC Wimbledon’s rebirth almost 20 years ago.

But the Londoner is perhaps best known for that sole Chelsea appearance, as it gave him the record for the shortest Premier League career ever.

It was in April 1997 when Sheerin replaced Gianfranco Zola off the bench against Wimbledon, who were then playing at Selhurst Park.

The game, which Chelsea won 1-0, ended within a minute of him entering the play – and he never touched the ball.

“I’m not too proud of the record, to be honest,” Sheerin says. “But I have to put things into perspective because I had an amazing time at Chelsea, and I got to train and play with world-class footballers.”

The forward’s time at Stamford Bridge was hampered by injuries, especially to his hip, which meant a year on the sidelines when he was 15. And that damage led to a recent hip replacement for Sheerin, who is now 42.

A boyhood Everton supporter, he was a regular at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane ground during their 1980s heyday, when the Crazy Gang boasted names like Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and John Fashanu.

Spotted by Chelsea playing for his school team, he was invited to a training session at Battersea Park. After impressing the coaches, he signed schoolboy forms with the club.

Sheerin progressed through the ranks, alongside friend Jody Morris, working as a ball boy on match days at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea went from a team fluctuating between mid-table and the relegation places to becoming one of the top sides in England during Sheerin’s time there.

Glenn Hoddle had taken over as player-manager in the summer of 1993, and it was the Tottenham legend who instigated a more cosmopolitan feel around the place, bringing in the likes of Ruud Gullit and Dan Petrescu.

Gullit succeeded Hoddle as boss ahead of the 1996-1997 season – after Hoddle quit to become England manager – and the Dutchman bought more top European talent, including Frank Leboeuf, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli.

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READ: Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea: Smoking, champagne & standing ovations

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Sheerin says: “Glenn used to do one-on-one stuff with me in training, which was amazing because he was one of my idols. It felt like something special was happening at Chelsea.

“It was sad when Glenn left because he took an interest in me and things might gave worked out better for me had he stayed, even though it was Ruud who gave me my debut.

“The club changed quite a lot under Ruud. Glenn knew everyone, from the youth team upwards, and Ruud didn’t – but I don’t blame him for that.”

Having trained with the first team on a number of occasions, Sheerin was named in the matchday squad for the game against Wimbledon.

“I was actually training with the reserves when [coach] Graham Rix came over and told me to come and train with the first team, and that I would be travelling with them to Selhurst Park,” he recalls.

“It was something I’d dreamed about and then it was presented to me on a plate, so I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. There was this sense of incredible excitement, but also a fear of the unknown and thinking what if I make a fool of myself.

“The good thing was that I was told on the day of the game, so it didn’t give me a lot of time to dwell on things.”

Sheerin was warming up on the touchline as full-time was approaching when Gullit called him back to the bench. He says: “When I was warming up, I actually saw a friend in the crowd, so I was chatting to him!

“It was a really cold night, so I had a hat and about five layers on and I remember Dennis Wise hitting me on the back and telling me to hurry up taking the layers off, otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to get on.”

That was to be his only appearance in the Chelsea first-team as he continued to be plagued by injuries until his departure in 2000. By then, Vialli had succeeded Gullit in the hot seat.

“I cleaned Vialli’s boots as a kid and he was a gentleman,” Sheerin says. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about him – he always looked after me at Christmas and he is one of the nicest guys I’ve met in football.

“I was told I was leaving in one phone call and it all happened so quickly. I went down to the training ground, collected my boots, said my goodbyes and that was it.

“It was emotional because I’d spent more than 10 years of my life at Chelsea.”

Still only 21 and sensing that he had to take a step down in order to try and get back to the Premier League, he signed for Bournemouth.

Sheerin scored on his debut against Oldham. But the manager who bought him, Mel Machin, was soon replaced by Sean O’Driscoll, who didn’t feel he was fit enough.

Disillusioned, he moved further down the league pyramid with Kingstonian and then spent a year out of the game.

Sheerin, who now works for an Italian coffee company, says: “Glenn Hoddle had gone to Southampton by then and he later told me that I should have given him a call when I was leaving Chelsea. Who knows what would have happened had I done that.”

What did happen was remarkable, though. It was in 2002, following Wimbledon’s hugely controversial move to Milton Keynes, that three supporters decided to start the club again from scratch.

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READ: The story of the ex-England U18 star who’s played in Poland, Malta & Iceland

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AFC Wimbledon was formed and Sheerin signed for his new local club.

“I was chatting to a friend in a pub and he told me that AFC were putting on trials for players,” he says. “I went down and there must have been 500 players there, so I spoke to the manager [Terry Eames], told him my background and I was taken on.”

Appointed captain, he helped Wimbledon rise through the non-league pyramid and is still held in high regard at Plough Lane.

Sheerin says: “I think what happened there was one of the greatest stories in football, thinking about what was done to them and where they have come from.

“At first, I thought I’d be there to get myself fit and then I’d go back into league football, but when there were 4,500 at our first game, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a bit special.’

“I remember, before that game, doing interviews with Sky Sports and taking part in press conferences. It was the most fun I’d had in football and I still have a great relationship with a lot of people at the club.”

The father of two stayed at Wimbledon until 2005 and, after a short spell at Croydon Athletic, he made a brief return before ending his career at Leatherhead, at the age of just 27.

“I could coast through some games because of the level I was playing at, but injuries began to take their toll in my last season at AFC,” Sheerin adds.

“I only played 12 games and the manager, Dave Anderson, offered me a play-as-you-play deal, but I turned it down. I should never have gone to Croydon because I found it demoralising playing in front of 60-odd people.

“In the end, with the injuries and everything else, it just wasn’t fun anymore.”

His daughter, Leah, 17, is following in his footsteps, as she previously played for Wimbledon and is now at Leatherhead.

“It’s hard to have regrets when you are happy with what you have,” Sheerin says.

“I do look back and think what would have happened had it not been for the injuries, but football is littered with similar stories.”

By Simon Yaffe

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