Craig Levein demands protection for Hearts striker Uche Ikpeazu

Craig Levein has called on referees to offer more protection to his striker Uche Ikpeazu, claiming that the Englishman’s strength and his honesty are counting against him.

Giant striker Uche Ikpeazu takes too much punishment without being protected by referees says Hearts manager Craig Levein. Picture: SNS.

Frustrated to see fouls against his player going unchecked, the Hearts boss reacted furiously during Wednesday night’s match against Celtic but said the 24-year-old is being unfairly impeded in most games and suggested that, if he was smaller or went to ground more frequently, then officials would provide greater guardianship.

“He is stronger than everybody and I feel that sometimes he gets penalised for that,” said Levein. “[In the Celtic match] one of them was holding on to him and the other one was heading the ball. It was happening right in front of us.

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“Uche is really good at holding the ball in and holding people off so he gets people hanging on to him and a lot of the time the pressure would be enough for him to go down, but he doesn’t. He wants to compete and I think he gets penalised for that.

“Sometimes it’s him against three guys, and he is the bully! It’s frustrating for me and I think it’s frustrating for him. Does he really need to go down to get a foul? The good thing for him is that he was back to his best on Wednesday night.”

A star performer as the capital side took the play to their illustrious guests, Ikpeazu has been described as a one-off in the Scottish top flight by his Hearts boss, who said that might explain the referees’ reluctance to mete out the right response to infringements, but he warned that they are creating an environment where the man who has netted four goals in 15 appearances may feel he has to take justice into his own hands.

“So far he has been quite good on that front,” Levein added. “He does get frustrated. But he’s not a daft boy, he knows that those things won’t help his career. He’s determined to do really well and he thinks about the game a lot. But I’m not saying he’ll never get involved, because everybody has a breaking point.

“The way he plays is about strength and you can’t penalise somebody for being stronger than his opponent, yet he’s had quite a lot of that already.

“It is difficult for the referees – because there’s nobody else like him and maybe they are trying to weigh up which of the three guys is fouling him! I suppose they see a big guy and assume he’s the aggressor but he’s the one holding the ball in, so usually the pressure is coming from outside, not from him.”

If Levein is disappointed with the way the ex-Cambridge United striker’s arrival in Scotland has been handled by officials, he has been delighted with Ikpeazu’s attitude and application and the way he has adapted to football north of the Border, taking the club and the fans to his heart. The feeling has been mutual and talks to extend his contract are already at an advanced stage.

“When I was younger, there were a lot of good, strong centre-forwards. But nobody like him,” said Levein. “Most of them were target men but Uche is more than that. He runs the channels and gets in behind. He can hold it in and he can score as well although he has been a bit unlucky with his finishing. I’m excited about what we’ll see when he gets up to full speed again,”

Searching for his first goal since August, Ikpeazu was desperate to take the Hearts spotkick on Wednesday. The coaching staff stuck with designated penalty taker Oliver Bozanic but Levein believes that keenness is one reason Ikpeazu chimes with fans who see a little bit of themselves in the cult hero.

“Every single supporter wants to be Uche,” he said. “They want to be the Hearts centre-forward and they would run about like mad if they got the jersey. He does that. He tries really hard. For Scottish people, trying hard is something we’re really proud of and he sets the tone. The other stuff, his ability and his strength, are additional things.

“The way he leads the line, if the other players don’t hit the pass as well as you want he can turn it into a good ball through his effort and that makes him a good team-mate. It makes other players feel good about having him in the team.”