Chants of “Uche, Uche” echoing around Tynecastle Park confirmed there is a new hero in Gorgie. The hulking 6ft 3in Uche Ikpeazu is a proverbial unit and, on early evidence, looks exactly what Hearts require up front.
Two instinctive finishes against Inverness Caledonian Thistle followed a goal in a midweek cameo substitute appearance against Cowdenbeath. If Rangers’ interest in Kyle Lafferty results in a move before the end of August, Ikpeazu appears to be a tailor-made replacement.
He is already amassing a cult following among Hearts supporters. “He’s a handful, really strong. He has a lot of good things but putting it all together will be the challenge,” explained manager Craig Levein following his team’s 5-0 defeat of Inverness. That ensured Hearts won Betfred Cup Group C and earned a last-16 tie against Dunfermline, while Inverness were eliminated on goal difference.
The former Cambridge United forward took Lafferty’s place in the starting line-up and scored a volley and a header in the first half of a rampant Hearts display. “He was really good,” continued Levein. “He’s a wee bit erratic but in time he can become a real focal point for us. He will be able to cause problems for other teams. He had a good game on Wednesday against Cowdenbeath and a good game again yesterday – against two teams who are not in the Premiership.
“He still has it to prove, absolutely, but he has been good and I’m pleased with that. There is no doubt he’s got talent. This is a step up from where he was before and he’s going to experience quite a lot of different challenges this year.
“The football is slightly different up here than it is down in League Two in England. As I say, he has the basic attributes needed to be a very good striker. Whether he can put all those together on a consistent basis, time will tell.”
Ikpeazu lashed home Olly Lee’s corner on 28 minutes and then headed Ben Garuccio’s cross into the corner. In between, Garuccio arced a beautiful free-kick beyond Inverness goalkeeper Mark Ridgers. Those three goals in a five-minute spell saw Hearts take command of a tie they had to win to avoid exiting the Betfred Cup at the group phase.
Steven Naismith’s two headers in the second half stretched Hearts’ advantage and, ultimately, sent John Robertson’s team out. They had to avoid a four-goal defeat to stay in the tournament, but this result ensured Partick Thistle squeezed into the knockout rounds.
Lafferty emerged from the bench to hit a post, although at various points of the afternoon there were threats from Inverness. Zdenek Zlamal, the Hearts goalkeeper, saved twice from Tom Walsh in the first period and then used his fingertips to get to Charlie Trafford’s header. On another day, Inverness might have scored two or three goals of their own.
“I thought it was a good game,” added Levein. “Robbo’s team played well in the first half. Our goalkeeper made a couple of good saves and [Joe] Chalmers had a chance. Our finishing was very clinical and the quality of the finishes was very good. The boys are feeling good about themselves.
“Ben was fantastic. He scored a wonderful goal. We have struggled in that left-back position for a while. He’s got a little groin strain which I’m a little disappointed with but hopefully he is okay.”
There was also deserved praise for 19-year-old Morrison, who has surely played himself into Hearts’ starting line-up for this weekend’s opening Ladbrokes Premiership encounter at Hamilton. He supplied countless crosses for strikers Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean to attack and worked like a trojan when out of possession.
“Callumn runs on extra-energy batteries,” said Levein. “He just keeps going and going and going. He has so much energy. What has always been good about his game is his willingness to cross the ball with both feet. He did that well again. I could go through the whole team. Everybody had a decent performance.”
Robertson was returning to his former place of work but left a dejected figure. Asked about the SPFL’s decision to deduct Hearts two points instead of three for fielding an ineligible player in the competition, he refused to look for excuses:
“It’s up to the SPFL. I would like to think they will send all the teams in our group the reason they came to the decision,” said Robertson. “We knew even a defeat by three goals would get us through and we were not good enough to do that.
“We are out of this cup for one reason only -– because of ourselves. Our own inadequacies and poor defending cost us, not the SPFL. It’s a massive disappointment. If you stopped the game after 28 minutes I’d have said we were doing great.
“We had the best chance of the game through Joe Chalmers, then it was six minutes of madness. We lost a guy at a corner, which is schoolboy stuff. Then we got lazy and gave away a free-kick. It was a wonderful strike. No keeper in the world would have saved it.
“Then we failed to defend a cross and that was the theme of the day. It happened twice more in the second half and Steven Naismith scored twice. If you are not prepared to do the basics that’s what will happen. The boys have let themselves down because we showed we are a good side but we need to do the dirty work.”