There may have been some suggestion that Uche Ikpeazu had big shoes to fill when Hearts sold Kyle Lafferty to Rangers this week. But when the 6ft 3in forward boasts size 11 feet, he might have felt little reason to feel inhibited by the role he has been given.
His winning goal, in an encounter that certainly offered no case for the defence in the fevered debate over plastic pitches, was just reward after Craig Levein’s side just about fashioned sufficient chances to be worthy of converting one of them. Not that Steve Clarke would have any truck with that view, mind you. The Kilmarnock manager was unequivocal it wasn’t the 23-year-old’s flashing header in the 82nd minute that settled the game but the straight red-card Willie Collum flashed in the direction of Gary Dicker 15 minutes earlier that condemned his team to an loss he considered entirely unwarranted.
There certainly seemed plenty of clatter when Dicker dug into Callumn Morrison and induced some hysterical writhing from the teenage midfielder, who was quickly bouncing back upright. Clarke was coruscating in Collum’ reading of the challenge.
“I didn’t think it was a red card at the time. I’ve seen it back and still don’t think it was a red card,” he said. “I’m sure Gary will get off on appeal and that will help us next week. It doesn’t help us this week. I think the most disappointing thing is that such an experience official couldn’t wait to get the card out of his pocket before he thought about it and assessed the situation. In the replay I saw Gary Dicker winning the ball twice, it was clear.
“It was a game that was going to finish 0-0. It was probably brutal to watch. It’s a decision that has cost us one point. Maybe its cost us three, but certainly one. It was a 0-0 game written all over it from the first ten minutes. It wasn’t Ikpeazu that won the game, it was the referee unfortunately.”
Clarke deemed there was nothing aside from the red card worthy of serious reflection. Levein, unsurprisingly, found plenty on a day when his side made it three wins from three to retain pole position in the Premiership.
It was impossible to overlook the fact they did so with the bustle and bolshiness that has so typified Levein’s get-the-job-done teams of the past. From the long throw-ins, to the hulking central striker, to the unyielding defence, all the classic hallmarks are present in the side he has reconfigured over the summer. The one difference was the lack of lines on the faces of the two players forming the defensive bedrock, the injuries to Christophe Berra and Aaron Hughes forcing him to partner 21-year-old John Souttar and new 20-year-old signing from Birmingham Jimmy Dunne.
Levein had no issues with the notion that his newest team is working to a tried and trusted formula. “I think certain things in this league work, it’s about trying to put as many of those things together to make them work,” he said. “Sometimes people say it’s like a Craig Levein team, I just want a team that wins. We have won the first three matches but that’s all. There is still a long, long way to go and we have achieved absolutely nothing yet.”
Equally, the Hearts manager appears far from done yet in the transfer window that closes on Friday evening. A move for Osman Sow he described as in the “melting pot” - apparently his previous injuries necessitating the need for further medical considerations - with another ,loan for Manchester United full-back Demetri Mitchell “nearly over the line”. Centre-back Gareth McAuley, meanwhile, remains an option. “There are still options available. We need a striker, a left-sided player, and a centre-back,” he said. “That’ll be no far away from it.”
Even allowing for a couple of fine Jamie MacDonald blocks and Ikpeazu’s constant endeavour, both sides looked far enough away from a goal until Olly Lee whipped in a cross from the right that the former Cambridge frontman met at the edge of the area and powered downwards into the corner of the net. A first league goal that followed an ineffectual display in the Betfred Cup win over Dunfermline the previous week, Ikpeazu’s delight over the moment caused him to tear off towards the Hearts bench with the velocity of a bowling ball careering towards nine-pins.
“He likes a celebration. It’s an even fight in weights, I think. His is slightly more muscle than me,” Levein said. ““He’s still a really young guy, he’s just moved up here and he doesn’t really know the league yet. In some ways it helps that opposition players don’t know much about his strengths and his weaknesses but he’d been on a goal drought so it was satisfying to see him back on the scoresheet.”
At his sardonic best, Levein produced his best post-match quip when asked if he was worried about his position through having a winning start to the season of the sort that ended up costing George Burley his job at Tynecastle in 2005. “I don’t think you can compare Ann Budge with Mr Romanov.” Amen to that, Hearts followers would say.