THey used to tell Hearts you’d barely know when Aaron Hickey was in the room. The crucial anomaly was that a timid and low-key presence off the pitch was tenacious and composed after crossing the white line. Hickey was always meant for big things.
Fourteen months after leaving Tynecastle, Hickey is thriving in Serie A with Bologna. Milan has been credited with an interest. There is definite Premier League attention – partly linked to the added value Scottish players have in a post-Brexit world – in a 19-year-old who continued on a strong upward curve under Sinisa Mihajlovic.
The similarity in position between Hickey, usually a left-back, and the Bologna manager – who has forged a brilliant playing career in Italy – has undoubtedly been important. âHe gives me a lot of one-on-one advice,â Hickey says. “On the ball, off the ball, defensively and offensively, he’s very good at telling me things.” A smile from Hickey follows. “He can lose it sometimes … but he’s a top manager.”
The world has wanted to know about Hickey for a while. Not that he was perfectly inclined to open up. âLook, I don’t mind doing these things, it’s okay,â he said. âIt’s just not something I would volunteer for. Can he plead ignorance to the Italian and thus avoid the club’s media duties? âI can jump most of the time, but they bring me a translator for the press conferences. Â»Ouch.
Hickey’s case is fascinating. It owes a lot to the courage he continues to hide so well, this time in discussion from his apartment in central Bologna. As a teenager, he left Celtic’s youth system to join Hearts on the basis that he anticipated a first-team route. This daring has been rewarded; Hickey was exceptional in the 2019 Scottish Cup final, a month before his 17th birthday. Celtic were impressed enough to try to redeem Hickey.
There would be no return to green and white. Manchester City and Bayern Munich have also failed in their attempts to coax Hickey. At the player’s request it was the least worn path to northern Italy with a move of Â£ 1.5million. Smart Money would bet on that number which would multiply countless times for Hickey’s next transfer.
âI came to see Bologna and immediately liked the feel of it all,â says Hickey. âThe training ground, the people, the city. Serie A was a big draw, it looked like a good move. I also thought there might be more opportunities to play here than in a lot of other teams. I am very happy that everything went well, with the choice I made. They’ve all been good decisions so far. They worked the way I wanted them to. I just looked at what offered the most opportunities.
The fact that Hickey has remained a starter this season is even more impressive given the context. He contracted Covid-19 in Italy last December. In March, he required surgery for a shoulder injury, which cut his 2020-21 campaign short. Scottish players have such limited experience of success abroad that pessimists felt Hickey’s Bologna spell could be short. They didn’t know much.
“So far, everything has gone very well,” he adds. “At the start of the season I thought maybe it would be a question of getting back into the team after my injuries, that I might have a few games, but I managed to play a lot and even add a few more goals too So I’m very happy I didn’t expect to get into the squad so early and play so regularly.
âYou go to bed thinking you’re going to play San Siro the next day. It’s a bit of a âwowâ moment. It was all such a great experience. Except perhaps against Achraf Hakimi, former Internazionale, whom Hickey easily cites as his toughest opponent. How did the Scotsman handle the winger? âNot very well. We lost 3-1. He scored two. The smile is back.
Another key attribute is Hickey’s versatility. His coaches at Hearts were debating whether he was naturally left-handed or right-handed. He played right-back, center-back and midfield alongside defensive roles on the left side. Grouped together, it’s no wonder Hickey draws admiring glances.
âIt’s a good feeling to know that there is interest from the big clubs,â he said. âRight now my head is in Bologna but I want to try going to one of the big clubs in the Premier League or something like that. It would be the ultimate thing for any footballer.
If Hickey is homesick from a distance, he masks it well. “My friends all have jobs or are in college,” he explains. âThey live at home. One plays for Queen’s Park. Everything is very different. I don’t know if they’re jealous of me or not. They would never let me know if they are.
âSometimes I think it would be nice to stay in Glasgow all the time, but when I come back here it’s okay. I miss my family and friends, but I love being here, living alone. Hickey’s only social media tool, Instagram, is “used to see what’s going on with my friends.”
With Liam Henderson at Empoli, Scotland has two players in the Italian top flight. So far, only Graeme Souness, Joe Jordan and Denis Law have represented the country in Serie A. Hickey’s sharp development means there is already room to think about what will happen next.