Uche Ikpeazu fired up after Daniel Stendel said he wasn't good enough for Hearts
Uche Ikpeazu was told by former Hearts manager Daniel Stendel that he wasn’t good enough to play for the club. The striker is still repairing his damaged confidence in the hope of rejuvenating a career he thought was finished at Tynecastle Park.
Ikpeazu found himself interchanging between substitutes’ bench and stand during Stendel’s tenure last season. When he asked the German coach for an explanation, he was informed that the situation was unlikely to change. The restricted game time badly affected his morale.
Robbie Neilson’s arrival as Hearts manager last month offers the 25-year-old hope of a renaissance. There is stiff competition in attack alongside internationalists like Steven Naismith, Liam Boyce and Conor Washington. Ikpeazu also has his own international ambitions to pursue with Uganda.
It is fair to say he is at a pivotal juncture in his footballing life. He knows he must capture Neilson’s attention when pre-season begins next month to force his way back in at Hearts. Then he must impress the Uganda coach Jonathan McKinstry, who gave the forward his first international call-up before coronavirus struck.
Ikpeazu is considerably more positive about his prospects now than he was just a couple of months ago. A chat with Neilson restored some faith after fears that his Hearts career had reached its end.
“He spoke to me when he was taking over. I’m going to go into the season and see how things pan out,” Ikpeazu told the Evening News. “Last season was a bit of a disaster. I lost a lot of confidence. My confidence was shot and I knew I didn’t achieve. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to.
“Under Daniel Stendel I was told I wasn’t part of the plans and I wasn’t really wanted. I wasn’t involved towards the end of last season and my Hearts career was more or less over because he didn’t want me here.
“That’s understandable, that’s football, but I know what I can do. Now I have a new opportunity. I’m probably in the best physical condition I’ve been in for a long time in terms of my weight and things like that.
“I’m feeling fit and confident that, if I get an opportunity, I can help. I believe in what I do. I’ve needed time to build my confidence up again and just work on myself because I lost a lot of that last season.
“When I spoke to Daniel, he told me he didn’t think I was good enough to get into his team at that time. For me it was a confidence kick because I knew I had more to give. At the same time, it was a tough season for everyone. I felt I could have given more.
"I have nothing against Daniel because I think he is a really good coach. That was just his opinion at the time. I was looking elsewhere, not knowing what was going to happen, kind of opening up my options.
"I just have to wait and see what happens now. I’m going to return and give myself the best possible chance under the new manager.”
Discussions with Neilson have been brief but encouraging so far. The manager will reshape Hearts’ squad whilst awaiting a final decision on a legal appeal against their relegation from last season.
“He has told me knows what I can do,” said Ikpeazu. “Obviously I need to come back and he will have a look at me but he said he knows what I’m capable of. I have some good attributes and he has obviously seen me play. He said he is looking forward to working with me.
“Essentially, it’s down to me. I’ve heard loads of positive things about him and, from speaking to the lads, I think the mood is lifting slowly. There is a different feel about the place with him being there.”
Playing in the second tier of Scottish football would not faze Ikpeazu. Like everyone connected with Hearts, he remains aggrieved at the enforced relegation after coronavirus halted the campaign.
“The way they dealt with the situation wasn’t great. We had eight games to go and I’m the first to admit we didn’t have a good season, but anything could have happened,” said the player. “My focus is on getting back playing, rebuilding my confidence, scoring goals, creating goals and helping Hearts win.”
Born in Harrow, Greater London, to a Ugandan mother and Nigerian father, Ikpeazu is eligible to play for three different countries. Uganda came calling in March this year when their Northern Irish coach got in touch in a surprise phonecall.
“Jonathan McKinstry is a top guy. He has seen me play and been watching me,” explained Ikpeazu. “When he realised I was eligible for Uganda, he was excited to have me along. He called me up at a time when I wasn’t playing.
"It gave me a bit of confidence even though I wasn’t involved at Hearts. He said he was looking forward to working with me. Playing for Uganda is something I’m really looking forward to.”
Covid 19 forced the postponement of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers he would have taken part in. In fact, the tournament itself has now been put back until January 2022. Ikpeazu fully intends being involved.
“We’ve still got World Cup qualifiers and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers coming up so it’s still very exciting. That’s even more of a motivation for me to work harder. To be called up to represent Uganda was a really nice feeling,” he said.
"The manager has really encouraged me and been really good to me. We speak every day, even though we haven’t met up. He has been really good during this time. I want to give myself the best possible chance for Robbie Neilson, for Uganda and for my future. I want to take my opportunities.”
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