Despite being told his season was over due to a broken foot, Hearts striker Uche Ikpeazu today declared he is back and ready for battle.
The Englishman made his first appearance in four months as a substitute against Livingston on Wednesday night and looked aggressive and determined after foot surgery.
Doctors told him last October that his first campaign at Tynecastle Park was effectively over after injuring his foot against Motherwell. However, Ikpeazu defied predictions.
He returned weeks ahead of schedule determined to help the club he joined just last summer. He only resumed full training on Monday but, when manager Craig Levein asked him on Tuesday if he felt ready to face Livingston 24 hours later, the 23-year-old didn’t hesitate. “I did think my season was over. They have to give you the worse-case scenario and the specialist did say that my season was more less finished,” he revealed.
“For me, nothing is over. I’ve had four operations in the last four or five years so I know how to bounce back from adversity. I just worked hard and I knew if I did the right things I could be back. I hope I can get back to my best.
“I trained for a couple of days and the gaffer asked me: ‘Do you feel fit?’ I said: ‘Yeah. I want to be involved.’ All through Tuesday and Tuesday night I was buzzing because I was going to be back on the bench. I’ve been waiting for this moment.
“The manager didn’t twist my arm - I twisted his. I was desperate to get out there. He has been brilliant to me and showed a lot of faith in me. I have to work hard for him as well as the team. I’m ready for the battle.”
Ikpeazu explained how he worked tirelessly throughout the winter to facilitate his return to action. “I was supposed to be out a lot longer so to be back this quickly is testament to my hard work and the staff around me. I worked really hard to get to this point so I’m happy to be back early,” he said.
“Everyone thinks I got injured in the collision with the [Motherwell] keeper but it wasn’t. One of the Motherwell centre-backs stood on my foot and it caused a movement. I don’t know all the ins and outs but it kind of twisted a bit. It was very strange. It’s in the past now, I’ve recovered well and I’m looking forward to the games coming up.
“At the beginning it was very serious and I was supposed to be out for six or seven months. It is a serious injury. All my bones were in place, so that was the advantage. I was able to recover quite quickly and I’m just delighted to be back.”
His cameo role wasn’t enough to earn Hearts three points against Livingston. Nonetheless, he did receive a hero’s welcome from the Tynecastle support when replacing midfielder Oliver Bozanic on 65 minutes.
“It’s been great. Social media is powerful,” explained Ikpeazu. “On Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, Hearts fans are messaging me saying: ‘We can’t wait to have you back out there.’ Even when I see them in town they are always encouraging me.
“They’ve been massive. I had to tweet them because they always encouraged me even when I was so far off a comeback. That’s motivated me a lot. Being back out there and seeing how they reacted gave me a boost. It makes me work even harder. They’ve been brilliant to me.”
Fighting back from four operations gives the player enough confidence that he can recapture his best form. His early-season performances quickly made him a cult hero in Gorgie and he is eager to show his resilience after so many surgeries.
“That’s part of the game. It makes me stronger and makes me work even harder,” he said. “I believe I can bounce back from adversity so I take anything in my stride. There will be ups and downs, it’s part of the game. That’s why you have to be mentally strong. I’m focused so hopefully no more injuries.
“I’m not match sharp because I’ve only trained a couple of days but I believe I can get to my best very soon. I believe the team can as well. We have good chemistry between us. If everyone plays at their optimum, I don’t see why we can’t hit the form we hit earlier in the season.”
Hearts were clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership when Ikpeazu joined Christophe Berra and John Souttar on the sidelines. Steven Naismith and Peter Haring would follow. They are all fit again, with Haring due to return to action in the next two weeks.
“The way we were playing, I think we would have been right up there challenging. That’s how things happen in football. Injuries are part of the game but I believe we will bounce back,” said Ikpeazu.
“You just have to take each game as it comes. We are where we are in the league so we’ll see. It’s important we get the basics right, build momentum and win games. If we win a couple of games then anything is possible. It’s down to confidence.”
The Premiership takes a break this weekend as Hearts host Auchinleck Talbot in the Scottish Cup. The junior club have sold more than 2,100 tickets of their 2,500 allocation as their fans prepare to travel to Edinburgh for the fifth-round tie.