Hearts manager Craig Levein says his players have proved themselves capable of handling most conundrums this term and believes that they will continue to do so despite the disappointing news that stand-in captain John Souttar and cult hero Uche Ikpeazu have joined club skipper Christophe Berra on the list of long-term injured.
The side mark the return from the international break with a Premiership match against Aberdeen tomorrow but, as well as the suspended Michael Smith and the aforementioned Berra, who is ruled out until the new year, they will be without Scotland centre-back Souttar and target man Ikpeazu.
Both players have been diagnosed with injuries which could rule them out for five months while they battle back from a hip and a foot problem respectively.
HEARTS INJURY LATEST
But while the news is undoubtedly a blow for a club sitting top of the league and with a Betfred League Cup semi-final against Celtic in just over a week, Levein refuses to let it derail the positivity.
With his side having started the season so strongly and looking well equipped to finish in the higher echelons of the top tier, the Gorgie boss says there is no way of knowing for sure how the injuries will impact on the season but he believes they have enough strength in depth to absorb the shock.
“I would love to say I can predict the future,” said Levein, pictured. “However, my view is that we have coped well up to this point and I believe we can continue to do so.
“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.
“People said that we would struggle when Berra was ruled out, but we haven’t. Now we have Jimmy [Dunne] and Michael Smith can play centre-back when he is available, Aaron Hughes is fit and I’ve been happy with Clevid [Dikamona].
“We’ve got a stronger squad this year and will be able to shift things around. Sean Clare is ready to go and Marcus Godinho is back from his injury. We’ve lost a couple but gained a couple. Jamie Brandon won’t be long, Harry Cochrane is fit. We’ve lost some important players but we also are adding some.”
With options to choose from as he tries to minimise the damage caused by the loss of talismanic figures at both ends of the park, Levein refuses to blame his national counterpart, despite the fact Souttar played on with the injury in Scotland’s recent defeat by Israel before being sent off. Instead Levein expressed disappointment on a personal level for a pair who have impressed in the early stages of the season but will now have to settle for the role of supporters in the coming months.
“I’m not going to blame anyone. John is a young guy and the captain of Hearts and he said he would try it. These things happen. There’s no blame attached to anyone in the national team at all.
“He landed awkwardly and felt something in his hip. We’ve had it investigated and he has torn the lining in the joint which means four or five months out. On the back of coming back from his achilles injury he now has something else to contend with. The good thing is he’s a strong boy and the focus he showed on his first rehab brought him back in a better place.
“My main thought is it must be helluva frustrating for John and Uche,” added the Hearts manager, “particularly as they picked up these injuries at moments when you feel their careers are really about to take off. I know how they are feeling and how difficult it can be to cope.
“Uche has started the season so well and feels really strong, worked really hard to get himself fit over the summer, lost a lot of weight and has been a revelation.
“His is quite an obscure injury, 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 so we sent the images down to the leading specialist in London. It’s normally an injury associated with a car driving over someone’s foot!
“But Steven MacLean has been fantastic for us and Stevie Naismith can play anywhere. Craig Wighton is fit again and Sean Clare will bring us something different.”