Uche Ikpeazu doesn’t lose physical battles. “Nah, that’s not possible,” he says with a hint of mischief.
The hulking Hearts striker knows every defender in Scotland wants a go at taming him and he is relishing the challenge.
After hustling Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer in midweek, Partick Thistle’s Steven Anderson is next up to wrestle with Tynecastle Park’s latest cult hero. Ikpeazu stands 6ft 3ins tall, is built like a bulldozer and tends to win duels while keeping his temper.
Progress to the Scottish Cup semi-finals is Hearts’ target at Firhill on Monday. Ikpeazu – with his strength, physique and ability to let bodies bounce off him – is pivotal to their cause. Yet he is more than a mere battering ram at the apex of the team.
“As the season goes on, people are going to try and fight me and be aggressive so I am used to it. I just kind of get on with it, I don’t really complain,” he says. “If I get frustrated and distracted it will affect my game.
“It is frustrating sometimes because when I watch games back I think: ‘Wow, I am being fouled!’ At the time I am thinking about staying on my feet, even if it’s just to win a throw-in to get the team up the pitch, that’s enough for me.”
The 24-year-old spent the last two seasons with Cambridge United in England’s League Two. It was useful preparation for the Ladbrokes Premiership. “In some aspects it’s similar and very, very physical,” he says. “I’ve been used to playing against guys that are even bigger than me so I’m used to being pushed about, or at least people trying to push me about. I’m used to it so I just get on with it.”
The physicality carries a high price in aggression. “Yeah. That’s what it comes with. ‘There’s a big guy, let me show how strong I am.’ They can try. I’ve got more to my game than just being a big guy. When you’re big, people are going to target you. I know what I can do. My strength is my strength and I have to use that but I have other aspects to my game.”
The Hearts manager Craig Levein underlined the work-rate Ikpeazu would require along with his presence to succeed in Scotland. The player used the advice wisely and has endeared himself to supporters with tireless effort. Wednesday night against Celtic was arguably his finest game in maroon as he nears full fitness after four months out with a broken foot.
“The more games I get the more confident I get and the more I get back to how I was playing before. Since I’ve been back I don’t feel as if I’ve hit those heights. I’m not making excuses but I’ve been out for a long time. Now I feel it’s slowly coming together again.
“Working hard is the minimum requirement, it goes without saying. The gaffer has been brilliant to me. He told me from the get-go hard work was the minimum. That’s just the way I am anyway. You have to work hard for the team, especially the way I play. Most of the time I am up top myself.
“You have got to be strong, you have got to win free-kicks. You’ve got to do those bits otherwise how will the team succeed if your focal point is not putting in a shift? It’s not going to work out.”
A new contract to keep him in Edinburgh is in the offing. “I think it’s the right club for my development,” says Ikpeazu. “I still think I’ve got a lot to learn. The manager’s been brilliant to me, he’s been really patient and very honest with me as well. The other week when I wasn’t at the races, he told me. It’s important that the manager tells you the truth and I went home and was like ‘I need to perform, I need to do better’. We should get something sorted out soon.”