Hearts boss Craig Levein backs his squad to cope with devastating blow of losing stand-in skipper John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu for five months



CRAIG LEVEIN is confident Hearts’ sensational start to the season will not be derailed by devastating injuries to John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu after the pivotal pair were sidelined for five months apiece.

Stand-in Jambos captain Souttar, who has previously fought back from six months on the treatment table due to a ruptured achilles in 2017, suffered a serious hip knock in the first half of Scotland’s 2-1 defeat against Israel last Thursday.

With the severity of the injury unbeknownst to him, the 22-year-old pleaded with national team boss Alex McLeish to allow him to play on in the second period and he was subsequently sent off in Haifa.

Ikpeazu, with four goals to his name since arriving from Cambridge United in the summer, faces a similar length of time out due to a fractured foot sustained in a hefty challenge with Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson in Hearts 1-0 win at Fir Park on September 15.

“John [Souttar] landed awkwardly and felt something in his hip,” explained Levein. “It was in the first half and he said he would try it again in the second half, but was struggling. It was John who said he would try it. I’m not going to throw blame at anyone.

“We’ve had it investigated and he has torn the lining on the joint, which means four or five months out.

“On the back of returning from his achilles injury, it is something else to contend with, but the positive thing is he’s a strong boy and the focus he showed on his first rehab brought him back in a better place than he was before he got that injury.

“Uche [Ikpeazu] has a fracture in an area of his foot that is really difficult to detect. We’ve had scans, X-rays and CTs and he’s constantly had pain during it all.

“Rather than take an X-ray of the foot, he had to stand in a certain position that created a shift in the bone that allowed us to recognise the injury. It’s normally associated with a car driving over someone’s foot . . . ”

The bleak diagnosis’ could hardly have been more untimely for Levein. Saturday afternoon’s visit of Aberdeen sets in motion a run of five fixtures which also include two matches against Celtic – one of those in the Betfred Cup semi-final – and city rivals Hibernian.

However, Levein, a man whose own playing career was cut short by persistent knee injuries, is loath to look beyond the effect on the individuals.

“First and foremost, having had more injuries than all of them put together in my career, I know how frustrating it is,” said Levein. “Particularly as Uche and John have picked up these injuries at moments when you feel their careers are really about to take off.

“That frustration for me is for them because I know how they are feeling and how difficult it can be to cope.”

With club captain Christophe Berra not slated to return from a hamstring tear until the end of the year, Hearts now face a defensive conundrum as they defend their place at the summit of the Premiership without Souttar, as well as losing the focal point in attack provided by the hulking Ikpeazu.

Nevertheless, Levein, who is yet to decide who will take the captain’s armband this weekend, was somewhere between circumspect and defiant yesterday.

“I would love to say I can predict the future – but my view is that we have coped well up to this point and I believe we can continue to do so,” said Levein. “I’ve become philosophical about these things over the years.

Sometimes when you think you have your strongest team out, you play terribly. At others times you go into a game and players surprise you.

“You would have said that we would struggle when Berra was ruled out, but we haven’t.

“We have Jimmy [Dunne], Michael Smith – although he misses the game on Saturday – can play centre-back when he is available, Aaron Hughes is fit. I’ve been happy with Clevid [Dikamona] when he has come onto the field too.”

In more heartening news for the Jambos, Steven Naismith was named Premiership player of the month for September after notching five goals for Hearts and regaining his international place with Scotland.