It says much about Hearts’ current state of harmony that the cumulative effect of a Betfred Cup points deduction, a long-term injury to captain Christophe Berra and the prospective departure of last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty has done little to dent the notion that a fruitful season beckons at Tynecastle.
An undefeated start to the campaign, featuring five wins from six competitive matches and a new-found potency, has allowed a positive vibe to build among supporters over the past few weeks, to the point where it now feels like any setback can be absorbed and overcome.
With the possible exception of fellow summer signing Peter Haring, nobody has played as big a part as Uche Ikpeazu in bringing the feelgood factor back to Hearts after a couple of years of difficulty. Things could barely have gone better for the imposing English striker since he arrived from Cambridge United, with three goals, some swashbuckling attacking displays and a match-winning assist for Lafferty in last weekend’s stirring victory over Celtic highlighting the 23-year-old’s potential in the fledgling weeks of his stint in Gorgie.
Encouragingly for supporters who have already taken him to their hearts, Ikpeazu, a standout performer in a team sitting two points clear at the top of the Premiership after the first two rounds of fixtures, gives the impression of a man who feels he’s only just getting started and has plenty more to deliver.
“It’s been good so far,” he said, with understatement. “The team is doing well and having the fans’ support gives you that boost to keep on working hard. My relationship with the supporters has been good so far – it’s nice that they have taken to me and long may that continue. I’ve just got to keep working on my game because I haven’t achieved anything yet. The team has had a good start but we haven’t achieved anything yet. I’m not getting carried away with anything. We have just got to keep our feet on the ground, both individually and collectively, and keep going.”
Although he scored 14 goals for Cambridge in England’s League Two last season, there was some close-season doubt among supporters about whether Ikpeazu would be equipped to step up to the Scottish Premiership. Early signs are that he is about to take it by storm.
“I scored on my home debut (against Cowdenbeath) which was really good and then scored a couple against Inverness,” said Ikpeazu, reflecting on his promising start. “Goals always give a striker confidence. I haven’t scored in my last couple of games but I have had a couple of assists and just helping the team and being a part of it helps. I believe there are more goals and assists to come and I am really looking forward to the games coming up.”
Ikpeazu feels his move to Hearts is bringing out the best in him. Asked if he had detected a step up in quality and demands since moving north, he said: “Yeah, of course. There’s high expectations here because it’s a massive club so you’ve got to be consistent. I think playing at a higher level lifts your game. No disrespect to Cambridge, but I’m playing with better players now, which makes me look better. I’m learning here and I’m happy.”
Playing, and making a match-deciding impact, against a side of Celtic’s reputation and calibre merely underlined the fact Ikpeazu had taken his game to a new level. “It was great, the best atmosphere I have played in, it was amazing,” he said, reflecting on the 1-0 victory at Tynecastle a week ago. “That’s what you play football for, that’s what you work hard for. My mum and family were at the game and my cousins and friends all watched it on TV. It’s great exposure and it’s good because people can see you from all over the world. It was a great moment but we move on to the next game now.”
Hearts go into their next game, against Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park in the Betfred Cup second round today, buoyed by a start which has so far defied expectations, with 13 new signings bedding in swiftly and to impressive effect. “I just think all the things we did during pre-season like going to Gullane beach, going away to a few different hotels in different areas in Scotland, those things all helped us bond,” said Ikpeazu. “I think if you have a good chemistry with your team-mates it can rub off on the pitch and that’s definitely the case at the moment.”