Uche Ikpeazu interview: I'm still confident I can get back to my top Hearts level
Uche Ikpeazu feels he is on the brink of recapturing the swashbuckling form he showed in his early months at Hearts.
The striker was a key player in the Edinburgh side’s rampant start to last season after hitting the ground running following his move from Cambridge United. Ikpeazu was in the form of his life, routinely bulldozing his way past some of the best defenders in the country as his new team soared clear at the summit of the Premiership.
There was an impressive two-goal display against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Betfred Cup, then another brilliant performance and match-winning assist for Kyle Lafferty against Celtic, a superb headed winner against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and then the show of sheer tenacity that led to Steven Naismith’s winner away to Motherwell in the match in which he picked up his progress-halting foot injury. Even then, before the magnitude of his problem was diagnosed, Ikpeazu played through the pain barrier to produce one of his most impressive displays for the club in a 3-1 defeat away to Rangers just over a year ago. Things have never quite been the same since for the Londoner.
There were sporadic games, such as at home to Celtic and at home to Aberdeen, earlier this year when he looked back to his bustling best. But it is only his last three games - away to Hibs, at home to Aberdeen in the Betfred Cup and away to St Mirren - that Ikpeazu has started to string together some form of consistency. Although his four-game starting streak, which began when he scored in the 3-2 home defeat by Motherwell last month, was halted by a tight hamstring which forced him out of the 1-0 defeat by Kilmarnock prior to the international break, the 24-year-old feels he is now finally back on the right path.
“It’s been stop-start for me ever since I got that injury last year,” Ikpeazu told the Evening News. “I was out for four months, and what people sometimes don’t realise when you’ve been out for that long is that it can take you time to find your feet. I feel I was starting to play well again towards the end of last season but then I pulled my hamstring (against Kilmarnock at the start of May). It’s been very stop-start but I definitely feel like I’m getting back on track in terms of finding my best form and getting back to full fitness.
“At the beginning of this season I was in and out for one reason or another and I couldn’t really get a run of games. But having that run of four starts in a row before the Kilmarnock game helped me a lot. I felt I was doing well. I scored a couple of goals, played well, held the ball up and was back to doing the things I know I can do. It’s about doing it consistently for me now.”
Ikpeazu is adamant that he will rediscover the spark that had him cast as one of the most dangerous strikers in the country before his injury halted his progress last autumn. “I’m still confident I can get back to the level I was at before,” he said. “The last three or four games prior to missing the Kilmarnock game I feel I was getting back to the level I know I can perform at. Now I need to be able to do it on a consistent basis.”
Ikpeazu’s fortunes have mirrored those of his team over the past year and a bit. He has gone from being idolised at the start of last season to being doubted in the early months of this one. The striker admits the intensity of being a Hearts player has tested his character. “I’ve been at big clubs before (Reading and Watford as a youngster) but I’ve never been one of the main players at a big club like Hearts before so it’s been a learning experience for me since I came here,” he explained. “When you’re an integral part of the team at a big club, you’re going to be judged. When I first came to Hearts, things were going really well, and it’s really, really good when things are going well. But when things aren’t going so well, some people and supporters turn against you and they think all of a sudden that you’re not a good player any more.
“You don’t lose it overnight though. I’ve showed that in the last three or four games, and I hope to continue doing that. I feel as if I’ve done okay in my time at Hearts overall considering the circumstances. I can definitely do better though - there’s loads to improve on. I need to stay injury free, get a run of games and score more goals.”
Ikpeazu bids to continue his personal renaissance against Rangers on Sunday after sitting out his team’s last match. “It was unfortunate that I missed the Kilmarnock game” he said. “I hadn’t played a lot of football leading up to the three games in the space of a week and obviously my body didn’t react too well to it. It was just a little niggle in my hamstring. I didn’t want to make it worse because I certainly don’t want to be out for a long time. I feel alright now and I should be fit for Sunday so I’m looking forward to it.”