Leaving Cambridge for a better education elsewhere isn’t something Uche Ikpeazu mulled over for long. The striker takes his footballing growth seriously and, at 23, sees Hearts as the place to master his trade.
He leaves behind an English town boasting one of the world’s best universities, but Ikpeazu knew he could only learn so much with Cambridge United in League Two. The move to Edinburgh is about developing and improving his own personal game.
At 6ft 3in tall and built like a vending machine, he lacks nothing in physical presence. Tuesday night’s friendly win at Arbroath gave fans their first glimpse of this imposing Englishman with a slightly unorthodox style. He wants the Hearts coaching staff to help refine his attributes and enable him to become more of an all-round centre-forward.
“I found out that the Hearts manager really wanted me. I came to visit the place and I liked it,” explained Ikpeazu, speaking exclusively to the Evening News in his first media interview since arriving in Scotland.
“It’s a massive club, so I decided to come here. I didn’t know much about Scottish football initially but now I do. I already knew Hearts are one of the biggest clubs in this league.
“I think the manager wants me to be more of a target man, to hold up the ball and bring other people into play. That’s my strength. I think it was the right time for a move and I came here to take my game even further.
“It’s been good so far. Hearts is a big club and a nice club to be involved with. Training has gone well and it’s good to get the first pre-season game done to clear the cobwebs. I feel sharp and, day-by-day, I’m getting fitter and stronger. I’m enjoying myself here and I’m learning, too.
“I want to play every game. I started loads of games last season at Cambridge and I want to play games here. I believe, if I start and I play regularly, I will score goals. There is loads of competition so I’ve got to prove myself. To do that, I just have to do what brought me success last season.
“I will play my natural game. The manager brought me here because of the attributes I have so I’ve got to use them. He wants me to hold the ball up, bring people into play, and score goals.”
Sounds easy. “It does, but it’s not. I’m still learning and I want to work more with the coaching staff here. They’re very good and I know I’m going to improve. I know I’m going to get better because I’m 23 and the best is yet to come. I know I’ve got the ability to achieve great things.”
Ikpeazu managed 14 goals in 44 appearances for Cambridge last season as they finished in mid-table – 11 points short of the League Two play-offs. Now his ambitions are considerably higher as part of a Hearts squad harbouring hopes of qualifying for Europe.
“I want to improve. Individually and collectively, we all want to improve. Everyone is fighting because we want to get into that top four this season. We are doing our best as a team to achieve that,” he said.
Consistent throughout the conversation is that self-belief is an integral part of the player’s character. Even his musical taste conveys that notion. Like every new signing, Ikpeazu’s Hearts initiation involved singing a song in front of his new team-mates. He may have had to wait in line for the mic with nine other new recruits brought in by manager Craig Levein during the close season. When he did take to the floor, it was a chance to get a message across.
“I sang ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ by R Kelly. My singing is alright,” smiled Ikpeazu. “I’ve always had that singing initiation. I’ve been to loads of clubs now so I’ve done a lot of singing.”
Hearts are the ninth team on his crowded CV. Born in London to Nigerian and Ugandan parents, Karl Anthony Uchechukwu Mubiru Ikpeazu began his football career at Reading as a scholar eight years ago. He then moved to Watford in 2013 and on to Cambridge in 2016. In between, there were three loan spells at Crewe Alexandra, plus others at Doncaster Rovers, Port Vale, Blackpool and Didcot Town. “Yeah, I’ve been around,” he laughed.
A two-year contract with Hearts offers the stability a player needs to make the kind of progress Ikpeazu covets.
“It’s good to be signed and settled somewhere. I had that at Cambridge, where I was able to play games and score goals. That’s what you get when you’re a signed player. You can really focus because you know you’re there for the next couple of years.”
Getting a game presents an altogether different challenge now. Steven MacLean, Aidan Keena, Rory Currie, Kyle Lafferty and Conor Sammon are the other strikers Hearts already have on their books, with Steven Naismith and David Vanecek still to be added to the mix.
Competition for places will be fierce within Levein’s squad, although one or two of the above could move on before the new campaign begins in earnest.
Ikpeazu knows he faces a fight for a jersey but there is no prospect of him shying away. Being a bit-part player isn’t part of his mindset and he is now transfixed on integrating into the new surroundings.
“There have been loads of new signings. It’s different for me and we need to see how we can all gel as a team. I think we’ll slowly get that,” he said. “It’s a good bunch here and it seems like a tight-knit group. This is a different environment and I’ve never played with any of these lads, but over time we will develop together.”