It looks like being third time lucky for Uche Ikpeazu.
The Englishman had to sit out the first two capital derbies of the season with an injured foot and, when he was knocked out in last weekend’s victory over Aberdeen, there was the chance that he would have to miss another.
But he has shaken off that clash of heads and will get his first taste of the high octane Edinburgh fixture today. Not before time, according to his team-mate Olly Lee, who believes the striker will thrive on the big match atmosphere.
“I think Uche will love it,” said Lee. “I have been giving him a bit of banter, saying: ‘You don’t like playing in the derbies, do you?’ Because, he’s missed a few. But, he’s buzzing. He’s a big character in the dressing room and he’s looking forward to it and it will be good to have him out there with us.
“He’s a big, powerful specimen and people can’t deal with him. Hopefully he will have another big performance and that will help us towards another three points.”
The ex-Cambridge United forward sat out the midweek trip to Ibrox as he recuperated but, back in full training, the man who used strength and finesse to grab the winning goal against Aberdeen a week ago, is looking to add another big-game goal to his tally.
In the last derby, in December, it was Lee who enjoyed that moment. His stunning first-half strike was enough to secure the victory and the city bragging rights and, with Hibs breathing down Hearts’ necks in the Premiership standings, he knows it is vital that someone in maroon steps up to do the same this afternoon.
“That goal is right up there,” said Lee. “It was a brilliant moment for me and for it to be the winning goal as well made it all the more sweet. I have watched it back a few times!”
It guaranteed the former Luton Town midfielder a place in the fans’ hearts but Lee said the bond with the Gorgie support had already been established and he knows how much these games mean, especially this time, as they look to extend their narrow advantage over the Leith side.
“It’s massively important to finish above Hibs,” said Lee, who has been disappointed not to start in recent games but intends to play his part in the run-in. “We didn’t manage to do it last season, but we’re gradually getting better. We’ve made it to two semi-finals and hopefully we can finish above them and also qualify for Europe. If we can do that, it’ll be a good season in my book.”
Ikpeazu, who has scored twice in his last three games, could be pivotal to that. His manager, Craig Levein, has bemoaned the striker’s treatment since arriving in Scottish football, claiming that the 24-year-old is unfairly disadvantaged by match officials, who seem blinded by his size and strength when it comes to calling fouls in his favour.
But Levein believes Ikpeazu handles the frustration of that and expects that to continue, even when passions are running high in his derby debut.
“He has been great because if it was me getting some of the decisions he gets against him, I would be infuriated and lose my composure and calmness but he seems to be able to deal with that particularly well,” said the Hearts boss. “All the centre-backs he comes up against seem to want to prove that they are stronger than him or better than him and he continually proves them wrong but that doesn’t stop them coming! They all seem to want to pick fights with him but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, he just gets on with his game. I admire him for that, I really do.”
Sympathetic team-mates are alert for any signs that Ikpeazu may be close to snapping, though, according to Lee.
“It’s what you get with players with different physiques. Peter Crouch used to get it as well,” said Lee. “In my opinion Uche gets harsh treatment a lot of the time but he has to keep his head down and keep working hard like he did last Saturday where he had a few decisions go against him.”
That included a yellow card for diving. It deprived him of a penalty but the caution was rescinded on appeal
“He managed to put it behind and score the winning goal which is the most important thing. That’s what you get remembered for,” said Lee. “Sometimes you have to have a quick little word with him to make sure he keeps his head but it must be so hard, he gets kicked from pillar to post in every game. Usually he takes it all and he knows the best way to show people is by scoring the winning goal and that’s what we try to keep in his head, that goals win games.
“He loves it, he thrives off it and he enjoys the love the fans have shown him, so long may it continue.”