They used to say at Hearts that you would barely know when Aaron Hickey was in the room. The crucial anomaly was that a shy, understated off-field presence was tenacious and composed after crossing the white line. Hickey was always destined for great things.
Fourteen months on from departing Tynecastle, Hickey is flourishing in Serie A with Bologna. Milan have been credited with an interest. There is definite attention from the Premier League – partly linked to the added value of Scottish players in a post-Brexit world – in a 19-year-old who has continued on a steep upward curve under Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Similarity of position between Hickey, typically a left wing back, and Bologna’s manager – who forged a successful playing career of his own in Italy – has undoubtedly been significant. “He gives me a lot of one-to-one tips,” Hickey says. “On the ball, off the ball, defensively and attacking-wise he is very good at telling me stuff.” A Hickey smile follows. “He can lose it sometimes … but he is a top manager.”
The world has wanted to know about Hickey for a while. Not that he has been perfectly inclined to open up. “Listen, I don’t mind doing these things, it’s fine,” he says. “It’s just not something I would volunteer for.” Can he plead ignorance to Italian and so avoid club media duties? “I can skip most of it but they bring me a translator for press conferences.” Ouch.
Hickey’s case is a fascinating one. It owes plenty to the fortitude 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 he foresaw a first-team pathway. That boldness was rewarded; Hickey was outstanding in the 2019 Scottish Cup final a month shy of his 17th birthday. Celtic were impressed enough to try to buy Hickey back.
There would be no return to green and white. Manchester City and Bayern Munich also failed with attempts to coax Hickey their way. At the player’s behest, it was the lesser-worn path to northern Italy in a £1.5m move. The smart money would bet on that figure multiplying umpteen times for Hickey’s next transfer.
“I came to see Bologna and immediately liked the feel of it all,” Hickey says. “The training ground, the people, the city. Serie A was a big attraction, this felt like a good move. I also thought there may well be more opportunity to play here than at a lot of the other teams. I am very happy with out it has all worked out, with the choice that I made. They have all been good decisions so far. They have worked out the way I wanted. I have just looked at what provided the most opportunity.”
That Hickey has remained a starter this season is even more impressive given further context. He contracted Covid-19 in Italy last December. In March he required surgery on a shoulder injury, which curtailed his 2020-21 campaign. Scottish players have such limited experience when it comes to success abroad that pessimists sensed Hickey’s Bologna period might be brief. Little did they know.
“So far it has gone really well,” he adds. “Coming in to the season, I thought it might be a case of working my way back into the team after my injuries, that maybe I’d get a few games, but I’ve managed to play a lot and even add a couple of goals as well. So I’m very happy. I didn’t expect to get into the team so early and play so regularly.
“You go to bed thinking you are going to be playing at San Siro the next day. That’s a bit of a ‘wow’ moment. It has all been such a great experience.” Save, perhaps, facing Achraf Hakimi, formerly of Internazionale, whom Hickey cites as easily his toughest opponent. How did the Scot handle the winger? “Not very well. We lost 3-1. He scored two.” The smile is back.
Hickey’s versatility is yet another key attribute. His coaches at Hearts used to debate whether he was naturally left- or right-footed. He has played right-back, centre-back and centre-midfield alongside left-sided defensive roles. Pieced together, it is no wonder Hickey attracts admiring glances.
“It’s a good feeling knowing there is interest from big clubs,” he says. “For now my head is in Bologna but I want to try and go to one of the big clubs in the Premier League or similar. That would be the ultimate thing for any footballer.”
If Hickey is remotely homesick, he masks it well. “My pals all have jobs or are at college,” he explains. “They are living at home. One plays for Queen’s Park. It’s all very different. I don’t know whether they are jealous of me or not. They’d never let me know if they are.
“Sometimes I think it would be good to stay in Glasgow all the time again but when I get back out here, it’s fine. I miss my family and friends but I enjoy it out here, living by myself.” Hickey’s only social media tool, Instagram, is “used to see what is happening with my pals”.
With Liam Henderson at Empoli, Scotland has two players in the Italian top flight. Until now, only Graeme Souness, Joe Jordan and Denis Law had represented the country in Serie A. Sharp development by Hickey means there is already cause to ponder what happens next.