Hearts striker Uche Ikpeazu insists ‘I’m not just a strongman’

Uche Ikpeazu is not an easy man to halt. A determined focal point, who takes some stopping, the Hearts striker is hoping it will be the same for the team as a whole as they tackle the latter stages of the Scottish Cup, starting with a quarter-final trip to play Partick Thistle on Monday.

Uche Ikpeazu uses his strength to hold off Celtics Kristoffer Ajer on Wednesday. Picture: SNS.
Uche Ikpeazu uses his strength to hold off Celtics Kristoffer Ajer on Wednesday. Picture: SNS.

With a brawny physique that appears to be hewn from stone, he wouldn’t look out of place in a heavyweight boxing arena. The Englishman is mentally robust as well but, while he insists he has yet to lose a physical battle – “Nah, that’s not possible,” he states with a smile – he stresses that power, both corporeal and psychological, is not his only attribute.

“I’ve got more to my game than just being a big guy,” said the 24-year-old. “When you’re big, people are going to target you but I know what I can do. My strength is a strength and I have to use that but I have 
other aspects to my game.

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“The more games I get the more confident I get and the more I get back to how I was playing before [the foot injury which kept him on the sidelines for four months]. Since I’ve been back I don’t feel as if I’ve hit those heights. I’m not making excuses but I’ve been out for a long time and I do feel as if it’s slowly coming together again.”

While the foot injury stopped him in a way few defences have been able to do, Ikpeazu still put up a fight, gritting his teeth before a scan finally got to the root of the problem and revealed he had actually played at Ibrox with a broken foot.

Happy to hold the ball in, get in behind or pull opponents out of position to set up team-mates, the man with four goals to his name this season is also comfortable ploughing forward, often dragging desperate, shirt-tugging rivals behind him like a strongman contestant would tow tractor tyres.

It is a side of the game that frustrates him but he says it has always been the case and while once he reacted wrongly and was sent off as a consequence, the older he becomes the better he gets at shrugging it off, metaphorically and literally.

“It is one of those ones where, as the season goes on, people are going to try to fight me and be aggressive so I am used to it,” he added. “I just kind of get on with it, I don’t really complain. If I get frustrated and distracted it will affect my game.

“I played in League Two in England last season and in some aspects it’s similar and very, very physical. I’ve been used to playing against guys that are even bigger than me so I’m used to being pushed about, or at least people trying to push me about. I’m used to it so I just get on with it.”

“It is frustrating sometimes because when I watch games back I think: ‘Wow, I am being fouled!’ But at the time I am thinking about staying on my feet, even if it’s just to win a throw-in or something and get the team up the pitch, that’s enough for me.”

At the moment the focus is firmly fixed on reaching the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup after injury denied him the chance to star in the last four of the League Cup. But he believes the right attitude will be enough to earn him his shot in this competition. Provided the players all apply themselves as they did against Celtic midweek, when they were very unfortunate not to take anything from a game they dominated for decent spells.

“The manager [Craig Levein, pictured] has been brilliant to me, bringing me here and he told me from the get-go hard work was the minimum requirement. That’s the way I am anyway. You have to work hard for the team especially when I am up top myself. You have got to work hard, you have got to be strong and win free kicks.

“You have got to do all those things otherwise how will the team succeed if the focal point is not playing well or putting in a shift?”

A reprise of Wednesday’s performance should be enough to see Hearts through against Championship relegation contenders Partick Thistle and, while lifting the trophy remains a dream rather than a reality, Ikpeazu, who is close to extending his contract with the club, believes that doing so would be reward for the way they started the season and have tried to get back on track after injuries derailed them.

“It would be massive for the club. I wasn’t here last season but the progress we’ve made from then has been great,” he said. “I think everyone should be appreciative of it. I know we had a dip in form but we’ve had some good results this season and potentially getting to another semi-final. I genuinely
believe the club is moving in the right direction. We set the standards at the start of the season. We’re doing better than last season so everyone just needs to stick together and just trust the process.”