Were you to ask the average fan how many Estonian footballers they could name, many would be left scratching their head when trying to pluck a familiar name from their 1.3 million-strong population. For diehard fans of the English Premier League, however, it's a much simpler proposition, what with the highly memorable Mart Poom having made his name there.
The goalkeeper was a national hero, winning 120 caps and six Estonian player of the year awards, and being voted their best player of the preceding half-century in 2003. Some of his most iconic moments were played out in England, but the 6ft 5ins player thought he had missed his chance. While initially spotted playing club football in Switzerland, Poom believes his displays as Estonia aimed to reach the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ saw him earn him his first contract with Portsmouth under manager Jim Smith.
“It was our first World Cup qualification after re-independence (in 1991) and we had an interesting, tough group,” he told FIFA.com. “We had Italy, Portugal, Switzerland – who qualified – Scotland and Malta. Unsurprisingly, in all those games I had plenty to do! (laughs)”
However, work permit difficulties, club legend Alan Knight occupying the No1 shirt and a string of injuries saw his time on the south coast cut short, with a frustrated Poom returning to his homeland. He would get a stroke of luck though, as an infamously rearranged France 1998 qualifier against Scotland brought him back on to the radar of Smith, who was then at Derby County, a year after leaving England.
Poom explained: “He asked the Scottish goalkeeping coach to produce a scouting report on me and as it happened we drew 0-0 and I had a good game. Soon after that Derby made an offer. Coming back I was determined to do everything I could to make an impact, having already had a taste. I was never going to give up on trying to return, but I didn't expect the chance would come so quickly.”
He would sign on transfer-deadline day in March 1997 alongside Paulo Wanchope, with both taking part in astounding debuts at Old Trafford a few days later. Poom – who is now Estonia's goalkeeping coach and also runs his own team and academy – remembers the build-up to facing his idol Peter Schmeichel well.
“I had only joined the team a few days before and I didn't even know everyone's names,” he recalled with incredulity in his voice. “Our kit manager didn't even have a goalkeeper shirt in my name! He had to rush to the Manchester United megastore and take one of their other keeper shirts, cover it with black material and print my name and number on the back! I think I've still got that shirt somewhere.”
He also ended it with Schmeichel's jersey too after the game ended in a famous 3-2 victory for the newly-promoted side, which would help forge a fantastic relationship between Poom and the fans at Pride Park. It made headlines back home too, with friends and family able to tune in to Finnish TV for the huge upset, which featured a memorable run and finish from Wanchope.
After five seasons together in the top flight, relegation followed and, after a tough start to life in the English second tier, Poom left his Derbyshire home: “I left in a rush, during the middle of the season, as I got a call from my agent saying I would be sent on loan [to Sunderland] tomorrow, so I had to pack my bag and drive off. I never really got the chance to say goodbye.”
Poom would return to Pride Park almost a year later and in astonishing fashion for a goalkeeper. With Sunderland trailing in stoppage time, manager Mick McCarthy waved him forward for a late corner and, with the ball arriving at the far post as he entered the penalty area, Poom connected with an unstoppable header to level the game.
“It was surreal," he said. "It was an amazing day and an amazing moment in my life. Of course it was a special day for me, being back at Pride Park, and to score an equaliser against your old club – with which you had great memories and relationship with the fans – was unbelievable.
“I didn't want to celebrate, but it was one of those times when all your team-mates want to catch you and jump on your back. At the final whistle the whole stadium gave me a standing ovation and it was a great feeling.”
He returned north after a lap of honour, having gifted his gloves to the Derby faithful, but his new fans were keen to savour the moment too, producing a beer in his honour named Poominator Ale – adorned with his salmon-like leap for the header. He said: “It was called that after a local radio commentator called me 'The Poominator'. The nickname has stuck with me a bit since then. I've still got a couple of bottles!”
Injuries continued to plague his career – he had 13 operations in all – but a loan move to Arsenal materialised and, after a long medical, he signed a six-month deal: “It may have been late in my career, but I was really proud to have got the opportunity to play at a really big club and to be a part of a world-class squad. It was a great experience for me.
“I always felt that I had to work harder, push myself and prove myself every day of being worth of this chance to play in England. I often had coaches say, 'Look Poomy, calm down, you don't need to train so hard'. But that was always my mentality.”
It was arguably this attitude that secured him a permanent contract and, ultimately, a UEFA Champions League runners-up medal: “I still have my medal. I remember that day, the players were all taken to the stadium, but there were only two goalkeepers in the squad for the game. So when [Jens] Lehman got sent off and [Manuel] Almunia came on I thought, 'Bloody hell, it could have been me!'”