Talking point: Uche Ikpeazu needs better protection - and to keep his head

Uche Ikpeazu competes with Auchinleck Talbot's William Lyle.
Uche Ikpeazu competes with Auchinleck Talbot's William Lyle.
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It was a bit of a mixed bag for striker Uche Ikpeazu on his return to the starting XI for the first time since October 7th's 3-1 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox.

Going against Junior opponents, Ikpeazu was clearly hellbent on making his mark and getting on the scoresheet. He wanted to honour the occasion with a goal and saw Auchinleck Talbot as the perfect opponents in which to do so.

Although he didn't manage to fulfill that pre-match wish, he still put in a strong performance at the head of the Hearts attack. As per usual, defenders often bounced off him as they tried to master his size, and he was unlucky with a couple of efforts. One first-half chance, in particular, saw him flick the ball away from the defender and shoot towards goal in just one movement. Just like his late header against Livingston, though, it was unfortunately right at the goalkeeper.

When he left the field he received a hearty round of applause for his efforts as the crowd were left in no doubt that they'd missed their hulking target man while he'd been out of action.

Though he likely would have been withdrawn regardless, seeing as he's still getting back to full fitness, manager Craig Levein must also have been keen to protect his player from doing anything he might regret. That's because Ikpeazu was getting more and more frustrated as things went on.

Big men are refereed differently in football games. Grappling, pulling, pushing, a defender can do all of these with more force to an attacking player of greater size and strength than he would a slighter striker, and often get away with it. It seemed like every time Ikpeazu got the ball he was having to fight through a physical challenge, often getting knocked off-stride as a result.

Of course, despite the popular modern-day narrative which complains to the contrary, football remains a contact sport. However, on several occasions the opposing defenders were going beyond what is usually deemed a fair challenge, and referee Kevin Clancy refrained from blowing his whistle.

When the official did blow for a foul, he regularly decided against issuing any cards or even warning the guilty party. The first time this happened, Ikpeazu had a quick word and went about his business. As the match went on, though, he got increasingly agitated.

It reached a tipping point in the second period where the striker exploded at the whistler. Clancy, to his credit, kept his cards in his pocket where many a referee would have booked the player for dissent. Instead he had a word with Ikpeazu and the latest Talbot defender guilty of fouling him. Still, the Hearts striker was mad. The team's leaders, Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith, each had words with him in an effort to calm him down.

Naismith would do so again when, having gone to ground too easily on this occasion, Ikpeazu had his head patted by a Talbot defender. He stalked after the centre-back with Naismith following not far behind, urging his team-mate not to do anything stupid that would risk suspension in the next round of the Scottish Cup or later in the competition. Heeding the advice, Ikpeazu decided only to jostle the defender in a slightly overzealous manner, but nothing that would get him in trouble (a foul wasn't even given).

Referees should understand that where there is a lot of physical contact and if a player of Ikpeazu's size appears to be impeded, it's probably a foul. And if numerous players are at it then a card should come out sooner to act as a deterrent against the rest.

However, Ikpeazu will need to understand himself that this is going to happen, and happen often. Referees are only human and they can only judge contact on what they see. So if a defender puts in the kind of force that would normally flatten someone of regular stature, and it only knocks him slightly off balance, it's difficult to interpret it as a foul.

It's perfectly understandable for him to get frustrated, but instead of getting into it with the referee and the opposing defender (who was losing 3-0) he should channel it into his game.

Shortly after the head-patting incident, the striker received the ball about 25 yards out, charged at his marker, feigned to go on the outside, cut back in and shot for goal. It looked to be heading for the far corner until a covering defender headed it wide. That's exactly the kind of revenge he should be looking to enact.