Few players have had as dramatic an introduction to life in the Premier League as Mart Poom.
The Estonian goalkeeper’s Derby County debut came in April 1997 away to Manchester United, the reigning champions, who were on course for another title and had lost just once at home in the league all season. By the end of an eventful afternoon, that total had been doubled.
“Manchester United were my boyhood team and Peter Schmeichel was my hero,” Poom says. “It was at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, straight after the international break.
“Derby signed me at the end of March and before the game I’d only managed to train a couple of times with the first team. I didn’t know all the players’ names very well, which isn’t good for a goalkeeper.
“For some reason my shirt hadn’t arrived on time so on the morning of the match the kit manager had to go to the Man United superstore and cover Russel Hoult’s name and number with black material, and put ‘Poom 21’ on top.
“I was obviously nervous before the game but tried to focus and tell myself not to look up at the big stands. Just focus on the game and the ball. I made a couple of early saves from Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona, which settled me down.
“We had a good start and Paulo Wanchope scored an amazing goal in the first half when he dribbled from the halfway line.”
Although Derby went two goals up through Ashley Ward and Wanchope, United came back at them after the break, reducing the deficit a couple of minutes after half-time through Eric Cantona and scoring again through Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just a minute after Dean Sturridge had made it 3-1.
United were famed for their comebacks, of course, but the visitors held on for a 3-2 win and Poom was already on his way to becoming a fans’ favourite.
The match was also an important milestone for Estonia, a country that had not long claimed independence from the Soviet Union and so had limited football pedigree.
“I was very proud to be the first Estonian to play in the Premier League,” says Poom. “It’s the best league in the world. You play in nice big stadiums, in front of full houses, against the best players. Of course, every footballer wants to play on the biggest stage possible.”
Poom was just 25 when he moved to Derby but had already had spells in Finland and Switzerland as he looked to make his mark in the professional game.
His first chance in England had come at Portsmouth three years earlier, but he made just four league appearances. A combination of factors had prevented him from having a bigger impact.
“In the beginning it was difficult,” Poom recalls. “I needed time to settle in and also I got a knee injury early on in the first season.
“The first operation in Estonia went wrong and when I came back to Portsmouth after a game against Italy, my knee blew up. I needed to have two more operations and I missed six to eight months with that.
“Alan Knight was No.1. He was a Pompey legend and he had a brilliant season. I was bought to put pressure on him, but it was difficult to dislodge him. And at that time Estonia wasn’t part of the EU so although I signed a three-year contract I only got a work permit for one year initially.”
Even though it didn’t quite work out as he’d hoped, Poom’s experience at Portsmouth was still beneficial. He had been able to adapt to life in England and a different football culture, as well as a unique manager in Jim Smith, who would later take him to Derby.
“At first he was quite difficult to understand. I spoke English, but he used a lot of swear words and I was wondering, ‘Is he not happy with me?’
“Every other word was a swear word,” laughs Poom. “But that’s the dressing room banter and the football language. As a young boy there were a lot of things to get used to.
“He was a lively, interesting character. I don’t mean it in a bad way, but he was an old-school manager. He was very temperamental, but he had a good heart. He could get very emotional during games – swearing and shouting without reason – because he was so excited.
“But at the same time, after the game you could have a chat with him and it was all OK. His door was always open. Het got on well with his players and he cared about them. He created a good mood in the camp. I’m forever grateful that he signed me twice.”
The positive atmosphere Smith engendered was evident at Derby, who were enjoying their first season in the top flight for five years when Poom arrived for what turned out to be a bargain fee of £500,000. An upwardly-mobile club with a cosmopolitan squad and a new stadium on the horizon, it was a fun time for players and supporters.
“We had a very good coaching staff and we got together a very good team. They were exciting times,” Poom says.
“We moved to Pride Park and the city got behind us. Derby is a good place to play football, with big support. It was great to be part of. I managed to establish myself as No.1 and I remained as number one throughout my time there.
“I had a great rapport with the Derby fans. That’s why I never asked to move even though the club received one or two good offers for me. One was Manchester United and one was Everton, which are really big clubs. But I was loyal and enjoyed being in Derby.”
Sadly, after a succession of mid-table finishes, the Rams’ fortunes started to fade. They were soon battling against relegation on a regular basis and eventually succumbed in 2002. Poom picks out a few reasons for their decline.
“Steve McClaren was the assistant manager and he left for Man United. Eric Steele, the goalkeeper coach, went to Aston Villa a year later.
“We started to sell some players who we never replaced and some signings were maybe not as successful as the club hoped. It’s a very competitive league.”
Poom was happy to stay on after relegation but later joined Sunderland, initially on loan, as costs needed to be cut. It was a big change for the player and his family, who were settled in Derby. They moved to the North East to find a club in turmoil.
“We had some good players and four international goalkeepers in the squad. But momentum can be positive and negative, and when it’s negative, things just seem to go against you. It was hard.
“Also, personally I had a back injury when I first joined. When I had a few games later in the season I didn’t help the team,” says Poom.
“It was a confidence thing for the whole team. It was a hard time for the club and the city. For me also, getting relegated two years in a row. It’s not a nice feeling and it was a difficult start to my career in Sunderland.”
A fresh start in the First Division under Mick McCarthy had the desired effect, with Poom making 52 appearances on the way to the semi-finals of the play-offs and the FA Cup.
He even managed to score a last-minute equaliser against his former club, climbing highest to execute a thumping header on his first return to Pride Park. It was a source of conflicting emotions.
“This goal added a lot to my status with Sunderland supporters,” Poom says. “I think every goalkeeper dreams of scoring one goal in their career.
“Because I’d left in the middle of the season I didn’t get to say goodbye. This was my way of saying goodbye and thanks to the Derby fans. I received a standing ovation from both sets of fans, which I’ll never forget.”
Although Sunderland’s cup and league campaigns both ended in disappointment, they laid the foundations for a title win the following season.
However, injuries were once more an issue for Poom, who was struggling to get back to full fitness when an unexpected opportunity arose in August 2005. It was one he couldn’t turn down.
“At the end of the transfer window, Arsenal were looking for a number three goalkeeper because Jens Lehmann was suspended for the first two Champions League games and Manuel Almunia had a finger injury. The interest came out of the blue.
“I was very grateful for this opportunity to join a really big club and play for a great manager in Arsene Wenger. I didn’t have a future at Sunderland so of course I took the opportunity, even if it was as a number three.
“With the help of great physios and masseurs, I got my knee right and I enjoyed working day-in, day-out with big stars like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp.”
Chances to play were few and far between, with Poom making just two appearances during his two years as an Arsenal player, but the situation suited him at that stage of his career. A tireless worker, motivation was never an issue.
“I’ve always been a fitness and training fanatic. Wherever I went they always had to kick me off the training field. That was my mindset. I gave my maximum every day even though I knew I wasn’t going to play on Saturday. To just be part of this great team was already an honour,” he says.
After a dislocated shoulder during a spell at Watford, which resulted in the last of his 13 operations, helped bring Poom’s career to a close, he started coaching back at Arsenal. He soon returned to Estonia to set up his own club, FC Nõmme United, and guide the national team’s next generation of goalkeepers.
A legendary figure in his homeland, having made 120 international appearances, Poom still has plenty of ambitions to pursue in football, and a son making his own way in the game.
“It makes me feel old that he’s already 20,” laughs Poom. “Markus plays for Flora Tallin and won his first cap for Estonia against Finland in January.
“He was born in Derby and started his football career in England with a local club called Hadley Rangers in Hertfordshire. He later joined the Watford academy before we came back to Estonia in 2010.
“Of course, I’m proud. Hopefully he will also have a career abroad at some top professional clubs.”
By Sean Cole