It was May 25, 2019.
Despite a somewhat uninspiring league season, Hearts found themselves getting ready to face Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final. Fans of the capital club travelled to a rain-soaked Hampden Park in hope rather than expectation and were dealt a massive surprise when the team line-ups were announced an hour-or-so before kick-off.
Craig Levein had served-up the latest in a series of mystifying decisions throughout his tenure as Hearts Manager by naming a relatively unknown 16-year-old at left-back, in the form of Aaron Hickey.
The youngster had made two previous appearances for the club – both in meaningless games at the end of the league season – coming off the bench against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, and starting at Celtic Park the previous week. Neither game had afforded Hearts fans – or anyone else watching – much of an opportunity to form a real opinion of the young defender’s ability.
Fast forward ninety minutes – and despite Hearts running out plucky losers to an Odsonne Edouard double – anyone watching knew that Hickey had the world at his feet.
The youngster cut an incredibly composed figure on the left side for the entire game. He showed a clear desire to win the ball, get it under his control, and do something useful with it. He was up against one of the form players of the season, in James Forrest, and didn’t give him a sniff. You really wouldn’t believe that this was a 16-year-old playing in the first meaningful game of his career.
It’s genuinely difficult to remember a youngster having so much of an impact in one game.
Any thoughts amongst the management team at Hearts that a new left-back might have been needed for the 2019/20 season disappeared overnight. The fans were happy to see Hickey keep his place too – in one performance; he’d earned it.
Okay – so the 2019/20 season didn’t exactly go to plan for Hearts – although the less said about that, the better.
But by successfully establishing himself as the first-choice left-back at one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, having only just turned 17, Hickey’s stock continued to rise – and he now finds himself being courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Whilst most of the world has spent the last few months working out how and when they’ll return to some kind of “normal” working pattern – the youngster and his dad, who doubles up as his agent, have invested their time in considering several offers from Europe’s elite.
Manchester City, Aston Villa and Celtic have all been credited with an interest – but Bologna and Bayern Munich seem to be leading the race – with Hickey having travelled to visit both clubs, take in their facilities and meet his potential new employers. His choice now seems to be between a move to Serie B and a clear route to the first team, or a move to Bayern’s youth set-up and the opportunity to learn at one of the biggest football clubs in the world.
Wherever he ends up – Hickey has all of the raw elements to be a top-class full-back. He’s composed on the ball, fast, tough in the tackle and a threat going forward. Perhaps more importantly, however, the youngster really does seem to have his head screwed on properly.
A couple of clubs in Scotland will be left kicking themselves when he does leave, though.
Hearts – of course – will be left to rue the fact that they didn’t tie him down on a longer deal when he first signed on as a professional. With one year left on his contract, the Edinburgh club are in a position where they need to sell; otherwise, they risk losing him for nothing next summer. A cut-price deal of around £1.5m is likely to be all that’s required to secure his services. If he continues to develop at the rate he already has, Hickey will be worth much more than that in the future.
Celtic had a very young Aaron Hickey on their books as a youth prospect until 2018, when they decided that he didn’t make the grade. Probably not the first time they’ve given up on a young left-back too early… just ask Andy Robertson! They stand to earn 30% of the fee that Hearts sell him for, but having spent the last six months trying to sign him back, the £450,000-or-so that they’ll gain will be little consolation.
Whatever happens next, keep an eye on this young man… he’s got a real chance.
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