Aaron Hickey: The Scottish teenager who turned down Bayern Munich
There are not many footballers – far less 18-year-old Scottish ones – who turn down European champions Bayern Munich when they come calling.
Yet Aaron Hickey has done just that, the teenage Hearts full-back opting instead to join Serie A club Bologna, with the likes of Aston Villa and boyhood club Celtic also reportedly keen.
One key factor in the prolonged decision was that the Italian side wanted him as an immediate part of their first-team squad, after just 33 senior games for the Tynecastle outfit.
But who is Hickey? And why has he been so sought after? BBC Sport Scotland asked the man who gave him his debut, Craig Levein, and others he has made an impression on at Hearts.
‘No worries about throwing him in’
Hickey started his footballing journey at Hearts, but joined Celtic at age 12 and spent four years playing in their academy teams before deciding he had a better chance at first-team minutes elsewhere.
That prompted a move back to Tynecastle in 2018. And, in the penultimate Scottish Premiership game of the 2018-19 season, the 16-year-old was given his senior debut in a 2-1 defeat at Aberdeen.
He started the following match, a 2-1 loss 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 about putting him in against Aberdeen,” says Levein. “He played because he was training so well. I watched all the youth games and he steadily improved from the period where he came back to us from Celtic.
“I had a little bit of doubt about throwing him in at Celtic Park but he proved that he’s more than capable of doing the job.”
What sort of player is he?
Despite spending the majority of his short senior career at left-back, Hickey is extremely versatile and, at his young age, could easily be moulded to specialise in different roles.
Indeed, when he returned to Hearts, it was as a central midfielder.
“He’s got really good defensive qualities but I don’t know if he’ll end up being a full-back, he might end up going back into midfield,” Levein adds.
“He could be a fantastic holding midfielder with his great awareness of danger and his ability to get out of tight situations with the ball at his feet.”
Hearts captain Steven Naismith has also been impressed with Hickey’s game intelligence.
“His understanding of the game subconsciously without thinking about it, is very good,” he said.
“All the small, quick decisions that need to be made on a pitch, Aaron predominantly makes them right and on top of that he’s got a good attitude.”
Current Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson, meanwhile, says Hickey’s on-field maturity shines through.
“He’s like a 24- or 25-year-old in an 18-year-old’s body,” he says. “He understands the game already. He has massive potential.
“I’ve been really impressed with him. He’s very mature for his age, he’s composed, has good physique, ticks all the boxes.”
Has ‘shy’ Hickey made right call?
Plenty of young footballers have an ego to match their talent. It must be difficult for a teenager linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs to stay grounded.
“I don’t know because he never speaks,” Levein says. “He just smiles. He’s a bit shy but it’s helped him going into big matches because he never seems to get flustered about anything.”
“He’s quiet and reserved and he just keeps his head down and gets on with it,” Naismith concurs.
Hickey is excited by the prospect of joining Bologna. He visited their facilities, as well as Bayern’s, liked what he saw, and weighed up the biggest decision of his young life, citing the “family feel” as one of the reasons for choosing Bologna.
The club intend to include him in their first-team squad, while Bayern would have put him in their second team, which plays in the German third tier.
Having plumped for the Italian side, he has prioritised his development at the sharp end. It’s a strategy that chimes with Levein’s hopes for a player he says Celtic also tried to sign “half a dozen times”.
“He’s had a taste of first-team football and it’s extremely difficult for young players to maintain their enthusiasm when not playing for the first team,” the former Scotland boss explains.
“I would always encourage a player to try to stay in that environment.
“I spent the last three or four months trying to get him to sign a new contract. It was extremely difficult because he doesn’t say anything.”