Craig Levein revealed today that he is desperate to sign striker Uche Ikpeazu on a long-term Hearts contract – and the Englishman is equally eager to stay.
Discussions on an extension to Ikpeazu’s two-year deal, which doesn’t expire until May 2020, are progressing well. Hearts are confident he will commit his future to them.
“We’re getting there. I’m confident. He’s desperate to stay and I’m desperate to keep him. He’s a really good boy,” said manager Levein.
Since arriving from Cambridge United last summer, Ikpeazu has become a hero at Tynecastle Park despite being out injured for four months.
“Every single supporter wants to be Uche. They want to be the Hearts centre-forward,” continued Levein. “They would run about like mad if they got the jersey. And he does that.
“He tries really hard and that’s a quality. For Scottish people, trying hard is something we’re really proud of. He also sets the tone. Sometimes when the ball goes forward it’s not a good pass, but he makes it a good ball through his effort.
“I think he appeals more than anything for his effort. The other stuff, his ability and his strength are additional things. The way he leads the line, if the other players don’t hit the pass as well as you want he can turn it into a good ball and that makes him a good team-mate. It makes other players feel good about having him in the team.”
Ikpeazu’s industry was most evident during Wednesday night’s 2-1 defeat by Celtic. With Hearts down to ten men after Jamie Brandon’s red card, he chased and pressed opponents with remarkable energy before being replaced by David Vanecek late on.
Levein believes the January signing from Czech club FK Teplice can learn much from watching Ikpeazu. “I was pleased with David last night as well. He came on and did well,” said the manager.
“He has been slowly getting up to speed. He was able to come on for the last ten minutes and do what Uche had been doing to a fairly high standard and I was pleased for him. He must be looking at Uche and thinking: ‘I need to do that to be as popular as Uche.’ He can do it.
“Uche is stronger than everybody. I feel sometimes that he gets penalised for being strong. On Wednesday, one of the Celtic defenders was holding on to him and the other one was heading the ball. It was happening right in front of us. That’s the only thing with Uche. He is really good at holding the ball in and holding people off. He gets people hanging on to him. A lot of the time the pressure is enough for him to go down, but he doesn’t. He wants to compete. I think he gets penalised.
“It’s him against three guys and he is the bully. It’s frustrating for me and I think it’s frustrating for him. The good thing for him is that he was back to his best the other night. He has been showing little bits but not quite to that level.”
Ikpeazu continues to stay calm despite opponents’ physicality and Levein is impressed with his temperament. “He’s quite good on that front. He does get frustrated but he’s not a daft boy, he’s quite clever. He knows that those things won’t help in his career,” remarked the manager.
“He’s determined to do really well and he thinks about the game a lot. I’m not saying he’ll never get involved, because everybody has a breaking point. But the way he plays is about strength and you can’t penalise somebody for being stronger than his opponent. He’s had quite a lot of that already.”
Ikpeazu was itching to take Hearts’ penalty in the second half to level the scoreline at 1-1 and didn’t hide his frustration when Oliver Bozanic took the ball.
“He was just desperate to score but Bozzy was on the field and he was one of the designated penalty-takers,” explained Levein.
“The good thing is Uche didn’t take it. That would have put pressure on him. He will get an opportunity at some point to take a penalty but when you have a designated penalty-taker and you stick to that, it takes the pressure off everybody. You don’t want to bring extra pressure on yourself by holding on to the ball and causing a scene.”
Levein admitted he never faced a forward like Ikpeazu during his own playing days as a Hearts and Scotland centre-back. “Not quite. When I was younger, there were a lot of good, strong centre-forwards. But nobody like him.
“Most of them were target men and I don’t think you could call Uche a target man. He’s more than that. He runs the channels and runs in behind. When he gets up to full speed again, I’m excited about what we’ll see.
“When he came up at the end of last season, he had a look around and we did some tests on him. He watched the Celtic game and went away having realised the amount of running he would have to do.
“So he lost six kilos over the summer. When he reported back, he was ready to go having done a lot of work. That was what was so annoying about him getting injured earlier in the season. All credit to him for getting back in really good shape.”