Confidence isn’t an issue for Uche Ikpeazu. Anyone copying basketball superstar LeBron James’ signature celebration isn’t short on self-esteem.
Hearts’ new striker is taking inspiration from the Los Angeles Lakers forward whilst evolving into his own type of hero at Tynecastle Park.
Ikpeazu’s two consummate finishes against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday announced him as the pretender to Kyle Lafferty’s throne. A volley and header gave the Englishman three goals in two games after scoring as a substitute against Cowdenbeath last week. Hearts won both games 5-0, so Ikpeazu is entitled to feel bullish about his own contribution.
Both of Sunday’s strikes were greeted with a raising of each knee whilst pressing palms towards the ground, then three powerful right-handed thumps to the heart. In America, it is known as “The Silencer” and is exactly how James celebrates after scoring a basketball point.
Ikpeazu’s new-found fame in Edinburgh is nothing compared to the adulation James enjoys across in California. Yet both men are physical specimens who attack their respective opponents and enjoy playing up to the crowd. Ikpeazu looks assured of himself like James, however he is acutely aware he is on a sharp learning curve just weeks after arriving in Scotland from the English League Two club Cambridge United.
“I love LeBron James, he’s my favourite basketball player. I love his LBJ The Silencer celebration,” explained the Hearts player. “I need to work harder, I’m not the finished article, I’ve always said that. For the last few years I have worked hard on my game and I will continue to work hard. I’m learning every day. I’m only 23. The management here have been great for me.
“I don’t look at other positions. I work hard, I focus on myself and I know what I can do. I don’t care who I play against, any team, anywhere. I don’t care. I don’t fear anything. I just focus on my game.”
The self-belief will serve him well as he battles Lafferty, Steven Naismith, Steven MacLean and Aidan Keena for a first-team shirt. That’s before the arrival of the imposing Czech striker David Vanecek from FK Teplice.
Lafferty, of course, could depart in the next few weeks after Rangers made their interest clear with a £200,000 offer for the Northern Ireland internationalist. Ikpeazu is showing he may well be the perfect replacement.
“I don’t really get involved in speculation but Kyle is a great player who has had a great career. He scored a lot of goals last season,” remarked Ikpeazu. “Losing him would obviously not be the best thing for us, but that’s football – whatever happens, happens. What I do know is that he’s great to have around. He’s a good character, a good footballer and he speaks to me a lot, too.”
Asked if he would rather Lafferty stayed in Edinburgh, Ikpeazu replied: “Of course. He scored 19 goals last season and he’s a great player for the team. I don’t know what’s happening but he scored a lot of goals and he’s a great player.”
Lafferty played second fiddle to Ikpeazu on Sunday as Hearts emphatically confirmed their place in the Betfred Cup knockout rounds. Last season’s top scorer watched from the substitutes’ bench as the newcomer volleyed home a corner and then headed a cross into the net with precision. Then came those distinctive celebrations.
“I was happy with my display, but the most important thing was that we got the win,” stated Ikpeazu. “As a striker, it’s nice to score. I was just happy for the performance we put in. We’ve bonded as a team, we have a good connection with each other. That wasn’t a bad Inverness team, but the way we played we made them look not the best.”
“I caught the first one sweetly. It was a good feeling. Look, I am happy but I know that I need to work at my game and there’s more to come.”
He was greeted with a standing ovation when substituted 11 minutes from the end. “The support have been great to me. It’s added pressure for me now because they expect me to perform at that level, week in and week out, so it’s up to me to work at that level to do that.
“I’ve moved into Edinburgh and it’s a nice city. The players have taken to me, both the new ones and the ones here last season. I’m enjoying it here both on and off the pitch. The standard up here is good. It’s not going to be easy this season, but I will keep working hard.”
As a team, Hearts are beginning to click in time for the Ladbrokes Premiership’s opening day this weekend. “Having a bond off the pitch is vital because it naturally comes on to the pitch. You could see there was a genuine connection,” said Ikpeazu, who noted the sterling contribution of 19-year-old Callumn Morrison on the right flank.
His endless energy and constant supply of crosses is something every forward thrives on. “I’ve been really impressed with Callumn. He works hard and has put in some great crosses and he’s only 19. When we get crosses into the box he encourages the strikers to get in there. For the second goal I knew I had to get into the area because Ben [Garuccio] has got a good left foot too.
“If they keep getting the crosses in, we are going to score goals. We scored five and how many of them were crosses?”
Four is the answer. Despite being a huge basketball fan, Ikpeazu will always prefer crosses to crossovers.