Football: Confidence does trick for Poom

Estonia's keeper may find himself out of favour at Derby, but he is focused on frustrating the Scots at Tynecastle on Saturday.
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FROM THE former Soviet second division to the English Premiership, via Finland and Switzerland, Portsmouth and Monte Carlo, Mart Poom's odyssey has had its share of oddities. Two involve Scotland, whom he faces in Edinburgh on Saturday, although on neither occasion did the giant Estonian so much as don his goalkeeping gloves.

While everyone has heard of the bizarre "game that never was" - the World Cup qualifier for which Estonia failed to turn up two years ago this week - Poom recalls an equally strange encounter with the Scots that does not appear in any record book.

The year was 1993 and Scotland were making their first-ever visit to Tallinn. A number of their followers, wearing what many bemused onlookers took to be skirts, engaged local youths in an impromptu "international" in the main square.

The participants did not even have a ball. Using a tin can, they tackled, ran and shouted as if they were playing before a full house at Hampden. It was the kind of convivial chaos which would not have been tolerated just two years earlier, when Estonia was under the heel of the Soviet Union, and the memory of it still makes Poom laugh.

The former schoolboy basketball player, who stands 6ft 5in, has another reason to view Scotland in a favourable light. Against them in Monaco last year he produced a performance of such assurance that Alan Hodgkinson, the Scots' goalkeeping coach, advised Jim Smith, the Derby County manager, to snap him up from Flora Tallinn.

That game represented a second chance for the affable 26-year-old in more ways than one. Not only did it allow Estonia to fulfill the abandoned fixture, but his display under siege in a 0-0 draw earned him another crack at the English game. A spell at Portsmouth, sandwiched between Swiss and Finnish sojourns, had ended amid injury and work-permit problems.

"Scotland were the first big football country we had even drawn with," Poom says. "They were full of players from big clubs and top names like Gary McAllister, Colin Hendry and Andy Goram. I made one of my best saves ever from McAllister and I did well with the high balls when they were looking for the head of Duncan Ferguson.

"That was in February and by the time of the transfer deadline in March, I was playing for Derby. I made my debut in a 3-2 win at Manchester United - who had my role model, Peter Schmeichel, in goal - so it was an unbelievable time for me."

No wonder he feels able to reflect positively on the no-show fiasco of the previous autumn. Poom still believes the Estonian FA was right to make its peculiar protest. He does not blame Scotland for complaining about the quality of the floodlighting, arguing instead that the commissioner from Fifa, football's governing body, blundered by ordering a change of kick-off time at the 11th hour.

"We were in our training camp at Kehtna, 60km from the capital, when we heard about the ruling. It was decided to stay there and arrive at the ground for the original time. We supported our coach (Teitur Thordanson) in his stand. The real mistake was by Fifa."

Craig Brown's squad were Glasgow-bound by the time Estonia's bus pulled in at the stadium, a scene more reminiscent of park football than the World Cup. "I've seen the film of Scotland kicking off on their own, when their fans sang: `There's only one team in Tallinn'," Poom says. "It was very funny."

Scotland took a measure of revenge for Monte Carlo by beating Estonia 2-0 at Kilmarnock the following month. It was the fourth meeting of the two nations and Poom has played in them all on the way to his haul of 60 caps. Even in defeat, the tiny Baltic republic competed in a manner which belied their qualifying record.

Initial soundings from the European Championship campaign bear out that impression of improvement. Estonia overcame the Faroe Islands 4-0 (an identical margin to the Scots' last home victory over the same opponents) before drawing 1-1 with Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo last month.

"That's a good start for us because the Bosnians have people who've played for Bar- celona, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Monaco," Poom says. "Also, four points is as many we took from all 10 games in our World Cup group, when we finished fifth.

"We have to be realistic about actually reaching the finals, but we think we can do better than that. We're getting more confident all the time, understanding what's required in international football. We've also played Scotland before so we know what to expect.

"The Scottish fans will be expecting them to beat us, probably by two or three goals. But if we can keep it tight we can frustrate them, especially after their 0-0 draw in Lithuania, and maybe they'll get desperate."

Poom's preparation has been less than ideal in so far as he has spent most of the season on the bench for his club. Yet he anticipates being physically sharp, having trained harder than ever under Derby's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, and mentally attuned thanks to a sports psychologist, Bill Beswick.

"Bill talks to the squad as a whole but he also does one-to-one sessions. He's been very influential in keeping me focused. It's a long, hard season and keepers in particular can suffer dips in form.

"You can't afford to let concentration slip in the Premiership. I believe it's the best league in the world. It's more open than in Italy, so you always have to be alert, even when the ball is in the other half of the pitch."

Poom has found the counselling so useful that he now studies psychology in his spare time. Estonia's team at Tynecastle may not be able to play with quite the abandon of their tin-kicking countrymen, but at least one member is determined not to be left carrying the can.