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Football: PANTHER'S SET TO HELP SAINTS POUNCE BACK.

Byline: IAN ORR

HIGHLY-RATED midfielder Emmanual Panther yesterday pledged his future to relegation-bound St Johnstone.

The 17-year-old enjoyed a sensational debut in the 3-1 win over Hearts at the weekend to kickstart a career he had feared was over before it had even begun.

Glasgow-born Panther - a Scottish schoolboy cap - revealed he went through nine months of agony after an operation for tendinitis.

He said: "It was a nightmare. It wasn't what you'd want in your first year after turning pro. For a long time after the operation in London I was still getting a lot of pain in the knee and I began to fear the worst.

"Teachers at school had warned me about players being seriously injured and said I should stick in at my exams but you never think it's going to happen to you."

Panther had company on the McDiarmid Park treatment table, with Geordie striker Graeme Jones diagnosed with a similar problem at the same time.

He added: "It was unbelievable to be told I'd be out for nine months with jumper's knee and I got a lot of valuable advice from Graeme and other senior pros. Hopefully I'll be mentally stronger."

The Perth kid, who was a Scotland schools team-mate of Man United kid Darren Fletcher, revealed his dad had him marked down for a career in the boxing ring.

He said: "My dad Cyril came to Britain in the sixties from Nigeria to further his professional boxing career and he used to take me along to the gym when I was younger. But I didn't fancy it - it was far too tough!"

Panther is highly rated by boss Billy Stark and is set to land an extended contract.

The youngster added: "Hopefully I'll get a few more first-team outings before the end of the season. My contract is up but I'm keen to stay - the club have been good to me and stood by me throughout my injury."

Stark said: "Manny has got bags of ability but he is also nearly six feet tall and has the build of a middleweight boxer.

"His size gives him an advantage over other youngsters and he's still eligible for our Under-18s next season.

"I was at a coaching session with people from the highly-successful Man United soccer academy and they revealed that they can tell to within half an inch what the growth rate will be of each youngster they take into the school.

"There are exceptions - like Paul Scholes - but by and large, height is a big factor in football nowadays."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 27, 2002
Words:426
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