Perth prodigy Panther in the pink

THERE can’t be many native Scots who were given the name "Emmanuel" at birth. Come to think of it, there can’t be many families in Glasgow by the name of Panther. So when you encounter Emmanuel Panther for the first time, you find a young man who won’t struggle to make a name for himself in football. Judging by the early glimpses of his talent, he could become unforgettable in more ways than one.

No black player has won a Scotland cap in living memory, with Kevin Harper coming closest. The former Hibernian winger won seven Scotland Under-21 caps from 1995 to 1997, before moving to England. Since then, there has been a striking lack of native black players in Scottish football. So how did Emmanuel Panther of St Johnstone, a Scottish Schoolboys international, make the grade?

The story starts in Nigeria. Cyril Panther was a Nigerian middleweight boxing champion of the Sixties, who emigrated to the United Kingdom to make a decent living out of his talent.

He began in London, but found it difficult to settle. His manager suggested Glasgow.

And so Cyril travelled north, seeking happiness, fortune and a home for the next generation of Panthers. With his wife Theresa, Cyril fathered four children, two girls and two boys, the younger of whom - to his undoubted delight - inherited every aspect of his lithe athleticism. Probably to the puzzlement of his neighbours, he named this prodigal one Emmanuel.

As little "Mani" grew tall and strong, Cyril would have been unable to resist the thought that he might follow in his father’s footsteps and make his name in the ring. But somewhere along the line, the realisation that this was a futile hope must have set in Cyril that he had come to the wrong city.

Mani grew up in Glasgow, the city of his birth, where all sports are considered equal, but one is more equal than others. Decades before, Cyril might have spent his formative years in the playground thinking of what he could do with knuckle-dusters. Mani will have had time only for Mouldmasters.

At John Paul Academy in Maryhill, there was only one black pupil among 800. But was he singled out? Quite the opposite. Streetwise, sharp and eager to blend in, Mani forged his identity just as smoothly as, using his physical gifts, he cultivated his game.

There was also, on top of these assets of brawn, a conscious mental effort to learn. Developing a liking for Rangers led him to study the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, and to store what he was seeing.

So keen was young Panther to get actively involved in his favourite sport, he joined an Ibrox supporters’ club, and started playing at pub league level.

At 13, the central midfielder was spotted by George Clark and Arthur Stevenson, the scouts of St Johnstone, and whisked off to Perth to sign his ‘S forms’.

Mani became a schoolboy international in 1999, playing for Scotland under-15s in a tournament in France against the hosts, the USA, Belgium and Holland, and the world, clearly, was his oyster.

Two-and-a-half years later, after overcoming a nine-month lay-off caused by tendonitis in his knee, the 17-year-old Emmanuel Panther took his bow on the main stage, making his first top-team start against Hearts at Tynecastle.

This was seven days ago, since when he has been introduced to the media circus, and handled it effortlessly. An engaging, polite young guy who walks, laughs and talks - if not looking - like any other teenage Glaswegian, Panther posed for photographs on Thursday with the same diligent enthusiasm with which he made his debut.

"I had only played about five reserve games, and only started two, so it was a bit of a surprise to get called up," he reflected, after straining his neck muscles beyond recognition to head about 50 balls in the air while lying flat on his back.

"I knew Paul Hartley and Keigan Parker were going to be suspended, but I never thought I’d be starting. I was happy being involved in the squad, and the manager told us on the Friday that I’d be starting. I was nervous at first, but when it came to Saturday I was relaxed. I had time to think about what I was going to do."

The St Johnstone manager, Billy Stark, justified the player’s sudden elevation by pointing to the fact that, at 17, he already has the physique of "a middle-weight boxer". An uncanny observation this, as Stark knows nothing of Mani’s father’s sporting history.

Cyril, now long since retired from pugilism, has never yet travelled to see his son play a game whose attraction he can barely comprehend.

"My dad has never come to watch me because he’s always working, but my brother and sisters come to the games," says Mani, who is quick to blot out any thoughts of paternal disapproval.

"He thinks it’s brilliant. He’s happy for me, delighted for me. As long as I can be a sportsman, that’s enough," he laughs.

Panther Jnr will be 18 in six weeks, and will find that life begins to swiftly march on. But he is quite rigidly focused on the task of succeeding in this game. Though his club are almost certain to be a First Division side next term, he does not see this as a potential stalling point in his progress.

Indeed, relegation, with the slight downturn in standards of opposition it will bring, might even hasten Panther’s passage towards a regular first-team slot.

"I obviously want to play at the highest level, but you need to start at a small club and see how things progress," he says. "I’m happy with the way things are going right now."

Horsing around with his youth team pals, you can see how his easy demeanour, in the face of constantly being the odd one out, has led Mani to develop such an assured character.

"A lot of the time at school I was the only black person in the whole school, but I have grown up with it and just got used to it," he states. "It’s never been a problem. I’ve always been quite outgoing, and always able to fit in with the crowd. I had the same accent as everyone else, after all."

Indeed he does. All we are left to investigate, in fact, is the locus of his patriotism. Having visited Lagos when he was 14, does he feel Nigerian, or has the urgent desire to fit in with his peers created an innate affection for old Caledonia?

"In between, I would say, in between," he chuckles. "Because I’ve played for Scotland, with the schoolboys, I’ve always thought that I’d pick Scotland first if I had the chance, but you never know what’s going to happen."

Indeed, he is unsure of who to support when Nigeria play Scotland at Pittodrie, on 17 April. But in a city as patriotic as Perth, where he lives in digs throughout the week, young Mani will certainly find support for the land of his forefathers come a later date this year: 12 June, Nigeria v England, Osaka.