Get off Craig Levein’s back, urges Hearts striker Uche Ikpeazu
Faith and good fortune helped guide Hearts into another Scottish Cup final. A 3-0 semi-final victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden was prefaced by a silent prayer from man-of-the-match Jake Mulraney and followed by a call from striker Uche Ikpeazu for the Hearts fans to have greater belief in manager Craig Levein.
After being frustrated throughout the first half, Hearts broke free in the second. Ikpeazu scored the first goal, and won the penalty converted by Sean Clare for the third. Those strikes bookended a volley by John Souttar that broke Inverness’ spirit and ended their resistance.
Levein had faced rising criticism heading into the tie on the back of some indifferent form but Ikpeazu felt next month’s cup final appearance – against either Celtic or Aberdeen, who meet this afternoon – ought to earn the manager some slack.
“I say to everyone: Just get off his back, you know?” said the Englishman, who came through a late fitness test to start the tie. “He’s a good manager and a good person. Back him. We are going to achieve great things, not only this season but in seasons to come. You just have to have faith because we have had so many injuries. I know football people are passionate but people just need to get behind the manager. He’s an amazing manager and an amazing person so stick by him.”
Mulraney found a moment of calm amid the pre-match build-up to say his usual prayer. What followed was one of his best performances in a Hearts shirt.
“Surprisingly, I wasn’t really nervous going into the game,” said the winger. “It was weird. I said my prayer and was quite calm before the game. It’s always the same one. I thank God for the opportunity, asking him to protect everyone on the pitch, to keep everyone safe and just to help me.
“I’m just happy to contribute to this win. Man of the match awards I’m not really fussed about, as long as I do stuff to help the team then I’m happy.”
Should Celtic prevail in this afternoon’s tie, it could present a delicate situation for the Dubliner. “All my uncles support Celtic and my cousins,” he revealed. “A few of my pals are also Celtic fans. If they get through it will be an awkward day. Hampden will be heaving with them.”
Hearts were worthy winners by the end but enjoyed some good luck, too. With the score still at 1-0, Inverness’ Jamie McCart was denied an equalising goal by the linesman’s flag. Replays showed that it was Mulraney who had actually made the final touch meaning the defender was onside.
“I slide tackled the boy and thought I nicked it off him,” admitted Mulraney. “Do I have sympathy for him? It’s football. These things happen every day. Mistakes happen.”
Souttar’s goal compounded their misery and all but ended Inverness’ chances of reaching the final. The defender expressed his ignorance at speculation linking him with a summer move to Rangers and dedicated the victory to Hearts chairman Ann Budge.
“Ann came in at the end and it’s great for her given how much she has done for the club,” said Souttar.
“There are a lot of demands on this club. It’s not easy to play for and I’m sure it’s not easy to manage or own. I was delighted for both of them. Ann said she was delighted and you could see it. Where this club has been – to now get to a cup final, it’s a fairytale story.”
Inverness’ disappointment was tempered by the hope that the Hampden experience could yet serve them well in the end-of-season play-offs.
“Our goal at the start of the season was to get promoted – we weren’t talking about the Scottish Cup at all,” said defender Joe Chalmers, who saw his free-kick pushed on to the bar by Bobby Zlamal. “This has been a bonus. But this experience can maybe help us in the play-offs.”