Uche Ikpeazu drifted off to sleep late on Tuesday night content with his first Hearts goal since August 25. If he plans to continue scoring, it will need to be from open play. Penalties are off limits for this friendly giant.
Finding the net in the 2-1 Scottish Cup quarter-final replay win over Partick Thistle ended a painful wait for Ikpeazu, sidelined between October and February after surgery on a broken foot. His tame second-half penalty to put Hearts 3-1 up was saved by the Thistle keeper Conor Hazard, much to the forward’s frustration.
He agreed with assistant coach Austin MacPhee that he could take any penalty awarded for a foul on him. Hazard’s save rendered that agreement null and void. Ikpeazu is adamant he will still take, and score, penalties for Hearts. However, for now he will cede the responsibility to Sean Clare, who scored the Edinburgh club’s second goal convincingly from the spot on Tuesday.
“You miss some and score some. Everyone misses penalties. The best players in the world miss penalties,” said Ikpeazu. “I’ve scored penalties in my career. I missed on Tuesday but it won’t affect me taking another one. It wasn’t a good penalty to be fair. We move on. Fortunately, we won.
“If I won penalties I was allowed to take them but next time I’ll be passing the responsibility to Sean Clare. I’ve missed, take a step back.”
He left Tynecastle Park with mixed emotions. Scoring once was a huge relief for a player desperate to score and further endear himself to an adoring public in Scotland’s capital city. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have had a brace, however.
“I was thinking a bit of both to be fair. I want to score goals. The penalty was an opportunity for me to score. I missed and it put my team under pressure. It was bittersweet because we’re through to the semis. I’m just going to work hard on the training ground and rectify that.”
Ikpeazu definitely has no plans to relax after ending his wait for a goal. “No, I’m not relaxed. I need to score more, I need to work harder, I need to do better. That’s just my mentality,” he said.
“As a striker, I love scoring goals. I’ve scored goals throughout my career. Not scoring has been frustrating although I feel I’ve been getting back to my best over the last few games. It’s good to get on the scoresheet and hopefully I can go on a run.
“The gaffer and coaching staff and all the physios have been brilliant to me and always let me know they believe in me, even when I haven’t been scoring goals. Scoring is a habit. I’ve been out for long so it was good to hit the net again. It was a relief.”
It quickly became apparent after Ikpeazu joined Hearts from Cambridge United last summer that he was pivotal to their aspirations and playing style. That has only been reaffirmed since he returned to the side.
A recent contract extension ties him to Tynecastle until 2022, by which time he will still only be 27 years old. Manager Craig Levein is building a team round the imposing Englishman whilst also trying to ensure the player does not become the focal point for everything Hearts do. Ikpeazu doesn’t seem to mind.
“I like the pressure. I put pressure on myself. I know I can dominate games and I should be dominating games,” he said. “When I’m not playing well I’m really disappointed in myself. I know that, with my attributes and ability, I should.
“I feel I’m playing well again. I don’t mind the pressure he [Levein] puts on me because it just shows he appreciates me and I’m a key player for the team. That’s great.
“I’m very ambitious and I know the ability I’ve got. When I’m not controlling the ball or protecting the ball, that’s putting more pressure on my team. They rely on me to hold up the ball and I rely on myself to hold it up. When I do make mistakes I get frustrated because I know I can do better. I’ll just keep working hard. I know hard work pays off.”
Such a humble and honest approach is difficult to dislike. Ikpeazu’s grounded attitude and drive to better himself underpin his relationship with Levein.
“He just tells me how it is all the time,” continued the striker. “When I’m not doing well, he’ll tell me. When I’m doing well, he’ll tell me. He expects big things from me and he has put a lot of faith in me. I have to repay him.”
He will need to reimburse Levein without the luxury of taking penalties to supplement his goal tally. That won’t faze him either. Penalties became a theme of Tuesday night’s replay as Hearts were awarded two and Thistle were denied two. Gary Caldwell and his players returned to Maryhill harbouring a fair sense of injustice as their Scottish Cup adventure ended.
“We should have had three penalties over the course of the two games so it evens itself out,” claimed Ikpeazu. “I thought we were the better team. We should have had the game wrapped up. I should have scored my penalty but in football you miss some and you score some. Overall we were the better team.”
Perhaps Ikpeazu will look forward to next month’s semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle more than most of his team-mates. The foot injury prevented him playing in the Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic last October and was badly missed as Hearts lost 3-0 at Murrayfield.
“I watched it at home with my foot up in a cast. To be part of it again is amazing. It’s testament to my hard work and the physios around me,” said the player.
He and his colleagues are now strong favourites to dispense with their Championship opponents and reach the final in May. Ikpeazu does not want to look too far ahead for the moment.
“I’m just focused on the task ahead and taking every day as it comes. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. If we do what we need to do, we’ll be fine.”