Why Hearts manager Craig Levein won’t judge Uche Ikpeazu on goalscoring alone
Uche Ikpeazu judges himself on goals, hence his euphoric celebrations after sliding home Hearts’ late equaliser at Easter Road on Sunday.
His first Edinburgh derby strike helped his club avoid defeat against city rivals Hibs. Just as important to Ikpeazu was the fact it continued his own scoring momentum.
He now has four goals in his last seven appearances as his levels of menace grow. The giant Englishman prides himself on bulging nets despite the Hearts manager Craig Levein prioritising his all-round contribution to the team. With a Scottish Cup final against Celtic on the horizon, Ikpeazu maintaining form and fitness is absolutely critical for the Edinburgh club.
He wants more than his current eight-goal total from 24 Hearts appearances but is presently enjoying one of the most productive periods of his career - despite missing four months of the season with a broken foot.
Four in seven is a ratio most supporters will be perfectly happy with. It would be five in seven had Partick Thistle’s goalkeeper Conor Hazard not saved his penalty in March’s Scottish Cup quarter-final replay.
He subsequently shrugged off that disappointment to convert against Aberdeen, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and, at the weekend, Hibs. If not already a cult hero among Hearts fans with his brutish physique, tireless industry and compelling goal celebrations, he is getting closer by the week.
“Uche judges himself on how many goals he scores. I don’t,” Levein told the Evening News. “It’s nice for him to score, it’s nice for every striker to score, but I judge him on more than that. He does other things for the team. I’d like him to score goals, that’s the ideal situation, but he brings other things to the table and they are just as important. If he can help other people score, then that’s good.
“I judge him on these things: Being able to get us into the last third of the pitch with safe retention of the ball, from there creating chances for other people, and also the goals for himself. Those are the things which are important. Naturally, I’m thrilled he scored in the derby match. That will give him a load of confidence.”
It seems confidence is what the 6ft 3in forward thrives on most. He has never been an especially prolific scorer previously in his career, with last year’s total of 14 goals in 44 games for Cambridge United his best numbers so far. It is worth remembering that Ikpeazu only turned 24 in February and time is most certainly on his side.
Hearts lured him north last summer with the chance to play and develop at a higher level, identifying potential in a hulking forward ploughing the unforgiving fields of England’s League Two. They gave him an initial two-year contract and extended it by a further two years just a few weeks ago. The impression he made since arriving in Scotland made him a central figure in Levein’s future plans.
“He always enjoys his moment and he’s got a few goals now despite being out for four months, so all credit to him. Some people don’t rate him but he does a good job for us,” said Levein. “He hurt his knee on Sunday and that was the only reason I would have taken him off during the game. As long as he was okay, it was a matter of trying to do something to help him.”
The aid arrived in the shape of veteran forward Steven MacLean. His introduction as a substitute for Sean Clare gave Hearts, and Ikpeazu in particular, fresh impetus and caused untold problems for the Hibs defence. It was no surprise to see MacLean play a pivotal role in the equaliser with a driving run and cutback for his strike partner to slot the ball home.
Scoring his fourth goal in seven appearances reinforces Ikpeazu’s status as first-choice striker at Tynecastle Park. He has recovered from foot surgery, which sidelined him between October and February, to re-establish himself as the attacking focal point of Levein’s side. With Scotland internationalist Steven Naismith injured and battling to return in time for the aforementioned cup final later this month, Ikpeazu becomes evermore vital.
He managed four goals in six matches for Cambridge between December 2016 and January 2017. That matched the statistics he posted for Port Vale between August and September 2015.
His initial weeks in Edinburgh were also productive, with another four goals struck in six Betfred Cup and Premiership games before the foot injury suffered at Motherwell halted his prosperity rather abruptly.
Ikpeazu has recaptured the hustling, bustling, rampaging style which quickly endeared him to Hearts fans last year. There is no doubt he will maintain his work-rate, so provided he keeps rippling the rigging he could be in for an extremely enjoyable end to his first campaign in Scotland.