Hearts’ Uche Ikpeazu still needs a gentle touch says Steven MacLean
While it might be surprising to look at them, there’s as many as 13 years between Steven MacLean and his young, muscular apprentice, Uche Ikpeazu.
It is strange to think of anyone being required to nanny the lofty English striker. But being able to bully opposition players doesn’t mean Ikpeazu has no need of a protective arm around the shoulder.
MacLean, 36, pictured,has been happy to help the 23-year-old continue to adapt to the Scottish game after his initially explosive start was interrupted by a foot injury sustained in a game against Motherwell.
Originally feared to be sidelined until March, Ikpeazu returned to the first team as a substitute against Livingston last midweek and made his first start since October in Sunday’s 4-0 Scottish Cup win over Auchinleck Talbot, when he looked particularly dangerous.
But there is still plenty to learn, with manager Craig Levein noting the striker was perhaps trying too hard to score following such a long lay-off.
Despite a slightly troubling goal famine stretching back 11 games, MacLean bided his time and was in the right place at the right time to divert Demetri Mitchell’s cross into the net seven minutes before half-time. It was his first goal since a 3-0 win at Dens Park against Dundee in October.
Given that MacLean is the senior player at the club and in view of the position he plays, Ikpeazu would be a fool if he failed to seek him out for advice. The elder striker revealed he has.
“He is such an infectious big character and he just wants to learn from people and do well,” said MacLean. “He is always talking to you and willing to listen. He also practises things because he wants to get better. He’s a great kid.
“Uche attracts people to the ball so he gives Naisy [Steven Naismith] and me more space. So with the big man back in the team, hopefully we can get back to the early-season form and the free-flowing football will come and we can start looking up the table and try to catch those above us.
“He’s got a bit about him but he’s not a big lump. He’s got a good touch and he is very good taking players on, one v one.”
It is perhaps no surprise that MacLean’s return to scoring form coincided with Ikpeazu’s return to the starting line-up.
“Getting big Uche back gives us a different dimension,” said MacLean. “I enjoy playing with him. I’ve got a great relationship with the big guy. He’s a gentle giant, a lovely big guy – although not if you’re playing against him!”
As well as Ikpeazu, Hearts are seeking to re-introduce David Vanecek to the first team after the original attempt to assimilate him went disastrously wrong.
The unfit-looking Czech Republic striker was substituted before half-time in last month’s defeat by Dundee. He played the last 20 minutes of Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie after coming on for Ikpeazu. “If you’re not doing your job then there are boys on the side waiting to come in so it’s going to keep everyone on their toes and its good for the team,” said MacLean.
“It’s important that when you get a chance you take it. I’m sure whatever system the gaffer uses, he’s going to have plenty of options.
“We had a spell with a lot of players out but we’re getting them all back which means we have a decent-sized squad again and competition for places,” he added.
If the well-travelled MacLean has not seen it all in stints at as many as 11 clubs both north and south of the Border, then he has seen most things. Very relevantly in terms of Hearts’ ambitions this season, he has scored a goal in a Scottish Cup-winning triumph for St Johnstone, where he enjoyed his most successful days to date.
Although he wasn’t at the club at the time, MacLean is aware of the rule: when Hearts beat Auchinleck Talbot in the Scottish Cup they lift the trophy.
It happened the only other time the clubs met, in 2012. Hearts went on to win the cup in memorable fashion with a 5-1 win over Hibs in the final. MacLean sees no reason why they cannot repeat this feat.
“We can win it this season, 100 per cent,” he said. “We got to the semi of the League Cup albeit we didn’t have a good performance against Celtic. We’ve got what it takes in that dressing room so there is no reason why not.
“Celtic are obviously big favourites but if we can get to a semi or the final you just never know,” he added.
“Hopefully when the quarter-finals come around on 2 March we will be nice and healthy and get through to the semis.”