Having bagged three goals in his first two games at Tynecastle, it's safe to say Uche Ikpeazu has caught the attention of the maroon faitfhul. Below is a full length version of his interview that appeared in the Hearts v Cowdenbeath match programme last Tuesday...
Like so many of us, Uche spent a large chunk of his summer keeping one eye on proceedings in Russia. His native England’s run to the semi-finals kept him on the edge of his seat…with one player in particular catching his eye.
“It was all about Raheem for me, I grew up in the same area as him and we played together at a few clubs when we were kids,” Uche explained.
“To have a fellow Wembley boy playing in a World Cup Semi Final, it’s pretty special. He is a role model for so many people, both kids and grown ups. It’s great to see what he has gone on to achieve in the game, because believe me, he has worked hard for it.
“I think he and England had a good World Cup overall. They haven’t been in a Semi Final for a long time and it’s something to be proud of.
“A lot of the boys in that squad are young so there’s loads to look forward to.
“You read the stories about the boys in the team. Most of them have had to work so hard to come from nothing and it’s probably something people can relate to.”
In a recent interview, Raheem Sterling paid tribute to his family for the role they played in allowing him to follow his dream. He would often rise at 5am to help his Mother at her cleaning job before heading off to school. In the afternoons, his sister would accompany him to training, which would involve taking no less than three buses each way before returning late at night.
It is a story that very much resonates with Uche. Born and raised in Wembley, the north west London borough most famous for its iconic stadium, he admits he couldn’t really help but fall into the world of football.
“Growing up where we did, you would pretty much see Wembley Stadium everyday and you were sort of naturally drawn into that football environment. My life was just football, football, football as a kid and it hasn’t really changed to be honest.
“My mum used to take time off work to accompany me to training and matches. When she couldn’t get time off I would have to take a few different buses and trains to get to training. This was the case when I was at QPR and later at Reading.
“There’s always been a lot of travelling involved but that’s part of the game. You have to go through that process in order to fulfill your ambitions.”
The towering striker signed a youth contract with Reading as a kid and soon began to make a name for himself in their youth sides. In the 2012/13 season, he netted 28 goals in as many games – more than any other Academy level player in England.
His goalscoring prowess alerted scouts at Watford and he duly penned a three-year deal with the Vicarage Road club in July 2013. The next three years would see him embark on loan spells with the likes of Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale, Doncaster Rovers and Blackpool.
Some of those moves proved a success, others didn’t. Uche is the first to admit that he has faced his fair share of challenges as a youngster attempting to break into the beautiful game.
“My record goalscoring season in 2012/13 was good, but at the end of the day, it’s youth team level. It’s so different to senior football. You’re scoring goals for fun but if you really want to develop then you need to step up.
“I spent a lot of time in the youth teams and I think it eventually hindered my development. If I had been pushed to step up from a younger age I think it would have helped me get better quicker.
“It took me a while to adapt to the men’s game and that maybe set me back a bit in the beginning. But I’ve improved since and I’m now very much on the right track.
“I’ve had loads of ups and downs in my young career and I’ve made some mistakes. I’ll probably continue to make mistakes but I’m very aware of the importance of learning from them.
“Drawing on my own personal experiences, I think the ups and downs and adversities in the game can sometimes get the better of you.
“I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been without a club or I’m at a club but not playing regularly. It can be difficult, you find yourself in unexpected situations.”
“I think that aspect of the game is something that the public don’t see and maybe aren’t too aware of. It can be really tough mentally, especially when you’re a young guy. The competition is fierce, there’s thousands of players out there trying to get a club and make a living.
“Not all that glitters is gold, you know? For every player out there earning six figures a week, there’s several hundred or even thousands who are fighting just to get a contract somewhere.
“It’s a tough world behind the scenes. Don’t get me wrong, there are many highs but as in any job or walk of life, there are challenges and tough times.
“You have to be mentally strong to play football. If you’re not then the game will just chew you up and spit you back out. Personally, I believe the setbacks have made me stronger and I’m now really focused on what I want to achieve.
“I’m thrilled to be at a big club like Hearts now. So yes, I’ve made it here but I’m still learning every day and my goal is to keep improving. This will be a big season for me personally and I really want to help the team be successful.”
The 6ft 3in attacker arrived at Tynecastle this summer having spent the past two years at English League Two side Cambridge United. He scored 22 goals in 80 senior appearances during his stint at the Abbey Stadium, by far his most prolific scoring spell in senior football.
His form for United means he arrives in Edinburgh full of determination to build on the foundations he set down south. Keen to make a head start, he spent the close season focusing on those pesky marginal gains in the gym.
“I was very aware of the step up in level here so I wanted to prepare myself as best as I could. I’ve got friends who have played up here before so naturally I talked to them a lot. They kept telling me about the physicality and how I needed to be ready for that.
“It’s important to prepare yourself mentally and I found the best way of doing that was to train hard. I’ve had this close season routine for the past three years and every season I’ve improved, so why stop?
“I know guys like Abdul Osman, David Amoo and Ade Azeez, who were all at Partick Thistle. I played with David and Ade at Cambridge United so I know them really well and they were full of good advice.
“Their words helped me and so far it’s worked out well, we’ve had a good pre-season but there’s things I need to improve on. The more I train and play the better I will get. I need to develop an understanding with my teammates and these things take a little bit of time.”
After enjoying five weeks of rest, the first team squad reported back to Riccarton on June 21st, by which point word had already got out that Craig Levein was putting the final touches to a grueling pre-season programme.
The first few weeks back involved a tremendous amount of running before work with the ball was gradually introduced. The team did, however, manage to squeeze in a trip to the beach when Craig sent them down the East Lothian coast for some “light” exercise on the Gullane sand dunes.
“Oh god, the beach was tough. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it’s important. Those are the sessions that will help us in games, when you’re digging in for the last ten minutes. You’ll feel the benefits.
“I think pre-season is a huge part of a footballer’s season. It’s vitally important that you do everything you can to ensure you’re fully preprared.
“The football season is long and it takes a lot out of your body. But the work you put in during this period is absolutely key. I knew that I would be put to the test here and that’s exactly how things have panned out.
“The gaffer has signed a lot of players and there’s a real enthusiasm in the dressing room about the upcoming season. There’s so many boys in there looking to make an impact and that really makes everyone step it up a gear.”
Hearts fans got their first glimpse of Uche’s ability in a 2-0 pre-season win at Dumbarton in which the Londoner grabbed himself a brace. His imposing physique has already proven itself to be a nightmare for opposition defenders.
“I know it’s important to use your physicality to your advantage. When I was young I really admired Didier Drogba and I always modeled my game on him. His hold up play was second to none but he was a real goal threat as well. He was a brilliant player, and that’s coming from an Arsenal fan!”