Hearts have been rocked by a devastating double blow ahead of a crucial run of fixtures after key duo John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu were ruled out until well into the new year.
Stand-in captain Souttar withdrew from the Scotland squad last weekend after sustaining a hip injury in last Thursday’s defeat by Israel shortly before being sent off for a second bookable offence. Since returning to his club at the start of the week, it has been established that he has suffered a serious tear. Ikpeazu’s impending lay-off is as a result of a foot fracture which was finally detected this week, a month after the damage was done in a challenge with Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson.
Craig Levein has intimated that both players – who have been crucial to Hearts sitting two points clear at the top of the Premiership – will be out for around five months, which would see them sidelined up to March. The stunning news, which emerged at Levein’s media briefing yesterday morning, is particularly untimely since Hearts are about to embark on a demanding run of five games in 15 days, with tomorrow’s match at home to Aberdeen followed by Tuesday’s trip to Dundee, the Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic, a midweek Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle and a Premiership trip to Celtic Park.
Explaining the nature of Souttar’s injury, the manager said: “He landed awkwardly and felt something in his hip. It was in the first half and he said he would try it again in the second half but was struggling. We’ve had it investigated and he has torn the lining in the join which means four or five months out which on the back of coming back from his Achilles injury (in the first half of 2017) he 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 than he was before he got the injury.”
Levein attributes no blame to the Scotland staff for allowing Souttar to remain on the park after he sustained the injury in Haifa. “It was John who said he would try it,” said the Hearts manager. “I’m not going to throw blame at anyone. John is a young guy and the captain of Hearts and he said he would try it. These things happen. He said he would go back out. There’s no blame attached to anyone involved in the national team at all.”
Ikpeazu suffered his injury in the well-documented challenge with Carson in the lead-up to Steven Naismith’s match-winning goal away to Motherwell five weeks ago. The severity of it was finally discovered this week after pain had continued to plague the big striker throughout the past month.
“It’s quite an obscure injury, a fracture in an area of his foot that is really difficult to detect,” said Levein. “We’ve had scans, X-rays and CTs and he’s constantly had pain during it all. We sent the images down to the leading specialist in London, James Calder, and he said there was a very small chance – our physio had already suggested it – but getting the scan to show something wrong it has to be done when the foot is under stress. Rather than take an X-ray of the foot he had to stand in a certain position that created the shift in the bone that allowed us to recognise the injury. It’s normally an injury associated with a car driving over someone’s foot.”
After a three-game absence, Ikpeazu returned to the team for the defeat to Rangers at Ibrox a week past Sunday and played the full 90 minutes. The bustling former Cambridge United striker was ready to face Aberdeen tomorrow until his shock diagnosis. “He didn’t feel great during the Rangers game but he played,” said Levein. “He was still in pain up to the Rangers game, he played in that and the pain was still there afterwards. But he was going to play on Saturday – that is how tough a boy he is. He’s started the season so well and was feeling really strong, having worked really hard to get himself fit over the summer and lose a lot of weight, and has been a revelation.”
The grim news for Hearts supporters is slightly offset by the fact Sean Clare, Marcus Godinho, Aaron Hughes and Harry Cochrane are all in contention after their respective lay-offs.