Sport Soccer

Sunday 22 October 2017

Poom believes Estonia have spirit to carry them through

Former 'keeper says pride has taken his nation on a journey from 50 years in wilderness to the cusp of a dream, writes Dion Fanning

When Mart Poom was growing up, the best an Estonian footballer could hope for was to make it as a basketball player.

In the Soviet era not many native Estonians played football because the Russophone population did. No Estonian had ever played for the USSR but there had been great Estonian footballers. They told the story of a country that was subjugated and strangled under communism. Eduard Ellman-Eelma made his debut for Estonia in 1921 at the age of 19. He scored 21 goals in 58 appearance for Estonia. In 1941 he was arrested by the NKVD and shot and killed later that year in prison.

So when Mart Poom grew up playing football, it was a strange pursuit for an Estonian. "The highest level was playing for the USSR but it was virtually impossible to play for them as an Estonian, all their players came from Russia, the Ukraine or Georgia. In Soviet times, everything was controlled by Moscow. In Estonia, football wasn't a big sport, basketball and cross-country skiing were the sports. It was difficult to imagine becoming professional."

In the 1970s, Roman Ubakivi started training teams through Estonian and the game became accessible to Estonians. Poom joined one of these teams, Tallinna Lovid (the Lions of Tallinn) and it began.

"We got our freedom at the right time, it was the right time for me," Poom says dryly. He was 19 and ready for adventure. He had a brief spell in Finland before joining Wil in Switzerland and then getting a chance in England, first with Portsmouth.

The Estonian national team was also being reborn.

Mart Poom played 120 times for his country. He played in their first game after they were affiliated to FIFA in 1992, a draw against Slovenia.

There were disputes about who should play with many believing only Estonians should be allowed to and those who had come to the country since the war should be excluded.

But the team took hold and Estonia took part in qualification for the 1994 World Cup and began to learn again.

"We had a lot of pride but we didn't know what to expect because we'd been cut off from international football for over 50 years, since before the Second World War," Poom says.

Their pride got them through when, in their first competitive game as an independent nation, they lost 6-0 at home to Switzerland.

In the first campaign they conceded 27 goals and began a run of three years from October 1993 to October 1996 without a win. They needed a lot of pride.

Poom's career was progressing and he signed for Derby County in the spring of 1997. He made his debut at Old Trafford -- "the 5th of April, 1997" -- which was enough of a dream without Paulo Wanchope running from his own half and scoring as Derby won 3-2.

In front of Poom that afternoon was Paul McGrath and he remembers he had never encountered anything like this man who would haul himself onto the pitch every week to play but, at that stage in his career, never, ever trained. Poom says he was honoured to be asked to play in McGrath's testimonial.

He played with Lee Carsley and Rory Delap at Derby and then moved to Sunderland where he worked with a manager he describes as "one of the best managers I ever had", Mick McCarthy. "He was a very honest man."

He remembers the Irish community at Sunderland fondly. He roomed with Gary Breen and observed Jason McAteer being Jason McAteer -- "he's a funny guy but he was good player".

Injuries were already affecting him but he had his moments. When he returned to Derby, he went forward for a corner in the last minute as goalkeepers do when their team needs a goal. As goalkeepers almost never do, he scored with a whiplash header. What happened next cheered him even more as both sets of supporters gave him a standing ovation as he came off the pitch. "That was very moving."

He looks back on his career and thinks he could have achieved more. It was affected by injuries and he wonders, like many ex-pros, like many people, how it might have been different.

He joined Arsenal as cover for Jens Lehmann in 2004 but didn't get much of a chance. In 2006, he was among the party that went to Paris for the European Cup final. Poom didn't make the bench and when Manuel Almunia was sent on as Lehmann was sent off, he wondered at that moment how things might have been. "Arsenal came too late in my career," he says.

A year ago Poom returned to Estonia. He had been assisting Gerry Peyton at Arsenal and he is now goalkeeping coach for the Estonian team. It is one of many jobs. He is sporting director of Estonian champions Flora Tallinn and he runs his own football academy. The pace is different to England, he says, the pace of life is quicker now.

He points out how the Estonian team had changed. "Flora are a big club in Estonia but when I was playing, most of the players played for them, now most of the players play abroad. Obviously it gives them more experience."

The story of this Estonian team and their run to a European Championship play-off is what holds his gaze now. Ireland stand between Estonia and "a dream coming true".

There have been moments that staggered him already. "We didn't have high expectations, we wanted to do well but it shows that anything is possible if you believe, if you have good players, a good manager and some luck."

Estonia went to Belgrade and won. "It gave us a lot of belief, it was the first time we beat a big country away and we also came from a goal down. After that result, we began to believe we could beat anyone."

They lost home and away to Italy but Poom remembers the chances Estonia created at home in their first match in the group. Estonia conceded two goals from corners that day, something Giovanni Trapattoni will have noted.

Their best results have been away with victories in Belfast and Ljubljana as well as Belgrade.

The coach Tarmo Ruutli is renowned for his ability to relax the side. "He manages to get a very positive feeling in the group, he puts no pressure on the players -- one of our strengths is fantastic team spirit."

There is one game they don't like to remember, when Brian Kerr's Faroe Islands team beat them in June. "That was the only game we were favourites -- this time Ireland will have the pressure and the expectation to win."

When they were a goal down in Belfast at half-time, Poom remembers their previous experience being brought up in the dressing room. "We knew we could win as we'd done it before."

This was a changed side and Poom had been present for all the changes. He knew how far they had come. "Five years ago we'd have tried to keep the score down. Now we went out to win."

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