There aren’t many footballers – let alone 18-year-old Scots – who turn down a European superpower when they call.
Yet Aaron Hickey has done just that, opting to join Serie A club Bologna instead of Bayern Munich from Hearts in 2022, with Aston Villa and boyhood club Celtic reportedly equally keen.
A key factor in his decision was that the Italian side wanted him as an immediate member of their first team, after just 33 senior games for the Tynecastle side.
After surpassing that total for his new club by earning a regular first-team spot in the Serie A side, the 19-year-old earned a first Scottish call-up for Thursday’s friendly against Poland.
How did Hickey become ‘one of Europe’s most remarkable young players’? BBC Sport Scotland has asked the man who gave him his debut, Craig Levein, and others he made an impression on at Hearts.
“No worries throwing it away”
Hickey began his football journey at Hearts, then joined Celtic aged 12 and spent four years playing in their academy teams before deciding he had a better chance of playing in first team elsewhere.
It prompted a return to Tynecastle in 2018. And, in the penultimate Scottish Premiership game of the 2018-19 season, the 16-year-old made his senior debut in a 2-1 defeat in Aberdeen.
He started the next game, a 2-1 defeat at Celtic, then a week later made history when the sides met again, becoming the youngest player to start a Scottish Cup final in the modern era as Hearts were beaten 2-1 at Hampden.
“I had absolutely no worries putting it against Aberdeen,” Levein said. “He played because he trained so well. I watched all the youth games and he has improved steadily since the time he came back to us from Celtic.
“I had my doubts about throwing him at Celtic Park, but he’s proven to be more than capable of getting the job done.”
Taking Serie A by storm
Graeme Souness. Joe Jordan. Dennis Law. It’s quite the exclusive club that Hickey joined to make Serie A history.
When the teenager blasted home a 20-yard strike in a 2-2 draw with Genoa in September, he became just the fourth Scotsman to score in the Italian top flight.
No one had done it since Souness 35 years before. “It’s crazy,” was how Hickey described his achievement, adding, “To be with names like Souness and Joe Jordan is a huge achievement for me. I’m really proud.”
Three more league goals followed for Hickey, who thrived as a marauding left-back under manager Sinisa Mihajlovic.
The Scot has done his due diligence to determine where his career would be best served. He visited the facilities at Bologna, as well as those at Bayern, and cited the ‘family atmosphere’ as one of the reasons for choosing the Italian side.
Another aspect that tipped the balance was Bologna’s promise to include him in their first team, while Bayern – European champions at the time – would have placed him in their second team, which plays in the German third level.
Hickey certainly made the decision look good; after 12 appearances in an injury-interrupted debut season, he’s been nearly ubiquitous this term, starting the vast majority of Bologna’s games.
Many young footballers have an ego to match their talent, but Levein believes Hickey’s temper will help keep him grounded.
“He never talks, he just smiles,” Levein says. “He’s a little shy but that’s helped him get into big games because he never seems to get upset about anything.”
Versatility improves Scotland’s prospects
Hickey’s form simply couldn’t be ignored. Steve Clarke admitted as much last week after handing the teenager a first senior call, saying: “If you look at the way Aaron has played for Bologna over the season, he’s one of the youngest players. highlights of European football.”
There is no doubt that his summons is deserved, even if the circumvention of the traditional trajectory of age brackets has not been without controversy.
After being selected by the Scotland Under-17s, Hickey did not play for Scot Gemmill’s Under-21s after withdrawing from the squads three times. His most recent withdrawal was last November and the reason – a need for rest – has raised questions over his commitment.
However, he has now been brought up in Clarke’s setup and finds himself in a stacked queue for the left back berth, the natural position for Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Greg Taylor.
This is where Hickey’s versatility could come in handy. Although he spent the majority of his short senior career at left-back, he also played on the opposite flank.
Also, when he returned to Hearts, it was as a central midfielder.
“He has very good defensive qualities but I don’t know if he will end up being a full-back, he could end up returning to midfield,” adds Levein.
“He could be a fantastic midfielder with his great awareness of danger and ability to get out of tight situations with the ball at his feet.”
Former Hearts captain and striker Steven Naismith, now the club’s head of football development, was also impressed with Hickey’s playing intelligence.
“His understanding of the game, without thinking about it, is very good,” he said.
“All the little quick decisions that need to be made on a pitch, Aaron mostly does them right and on top of that he has a great attitude.”
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, meanwhile, says Hickey’s on-pitch maturity shines through.
“He’s like a 24- or 25-year-old in a teenager’s body,” he says. “He already understands the game. He has huge potential. I was really impressed with him. He’s very mature for his age, he’s composed, has a good physique, ticks all the boxes.”