Hearts supporters, eagerly awaiting their table-topping team’s return to action against Aberdeen at Tynecastle tomorrow were suddenly plunged into a collective state of shock and deflation when news filtered out via Craig Levein’s pre-match media briefing at Oriam yesterday morning that not one, but two of their main men had been ruled out until well into 2019.
If Hearts, currently two points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership, are to be the team that finally ends 34 years of Glasgow dominance of Scotland’s top-flight title, they are going to have to defy all logic and lots of adversity to do so. Already this season they have sold last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty, had a scare surrounding their manager’s health, and lost their inspirational captain, Christophe Berra, to serious injury for the first half of the campaign.
Now they must face the guts of what remains of this season without their stand-in skipper and defensive linchpin, John Souttar, and their main striker, Uche Ikpeazu, after the club learned this week that both players face around five months out with serious hip and foot injuries respectively.
The presence of this burgeoning duo, along with the likes of Peter Haring and Steven Naismith, was crucial to the perception that this Hearts team might just be equipped to sustain a serious title challenge. While it remains to be seen just how damaging this week’s setback proves to be to the team’s prospects, Levein, understandably given the injury torment he endured in his own playing career, is currently more concerned with the wellbeing of both Souttar and Ikpeazu, two players whose progress has been unceremoniously halted just as they seemed set to catch fire.
“I always think first and foremost about the players,” said the manager.
“Having had more injuries than all of them put together in my career, I know how frustrating it is, 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.
“We’ve got a stronger squad this year and will be able to shift things around to deal with that and having guys such as Steven Naismith and Steven MacLean in the building helps. Sean Clare is ready to go and Marcus Godinho is back from his injury.
“We’ve lost a couple and gained a couple, but my main thought is it must be a helluva frustration for John and Uche.”
While acknowledging the magnitude of the blow to Hearts, Levein is hopeful that it won’t automatically serve to knock them out of their impressive early-season stride.
“My view is that we have coped well up to this point and I believe we can continue to do so,” he said. “I’ve become philosophical about these things over the years. Sometimes when you think you’ve got your strongest team you play terribly and at others times you go into a game and players surprise you.
“We have a stronger squad and have people back coming back from injury and David Vanecek is arriving in January, so we’re in a better place to cope and that’s all we can do. You can’t legislate completely for injuries – we can’t have two Christophe Berras, two John Souttars or two Uches. We just can’t afford it so we do the best we can to look ahead and see who can do what.”
Levein doesn’t anticipate his defenders – which have produced clean sheets in seven of their past 12 matches – going to pieces without Souttar.
“You would have said that we would struggle when Berra was ruled out, but we haven’t,” said the manager. “Now 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. Going away with Northern Ireland for a couple of weeks was good, he’s been able to train all the way through and is fit again.
“I’ve been happy with Clevid [Dikamona] when he has come on to the field. We also have Sean Clare and Marcus Godinho to add into the mix. Jamie Brandon won’t be long, Harry Cochrane is fit. We’ve lost some important players but also are adding some.”
In terms of filling the void left by Ikpeazu, the fact Levein has so many midfielders allows him the option of playing talisman Naismith up front.
“I think Steven MacLean has been fantastic for us and Stevie Naismith can play anywhere,” said the manager. “We’ve played him as a striker, off the left, off the right and in behind. He understands the game so well and can do any of these roles. Craig Wighton is fit again and Sean Clare will bring us something different.”
As a result of Souttar’s injury, Hearts will be doubly eager to get Berra back at the earliest opportunity. The captain remains a couple of months away from returning from a serious hamstring injury. “He said he is ahead of schedule ... he’s a strong character!” said Levein. “To be fair, he probably is because he is so diligent in his work. I’m expecting to see him after the winter break but he has guaranteed me he’ll be back before that.”