Touching down at Bologna’s Guglielmo Marconi Airport today, Aaron Hickey may not know he is landing on tarmac named after a famous Italian inventor. He will be fully aware he is there to help reinvent the city’s football club, however.
Bologna FC are amidst a restoration project intended to transform them into Serie A challengers once again. The Stadio Dall’Ara will be rebuilt at a cost of £90m and teenagers with serious potential are being bought up in numbers. Hickey is the latest.
Provided he passes a medical, a £1.78m transfer from Hearts will unite him with fellow 18-year-old prodigies like the Icelandic midfielder Andri Baldursson, Gambian forward Musa Juwara and Italian winger Gianmarco Cangiano.
Bologna also covet Dynamo Kiev’s 20-year-old striker Vladyslav Supriaha – regarded as Ukraine's equivalent of Erling Haaland – and are prepared to pay £9m to sign him.
“It is my goal to make Bologna great again, not only in the transfer market but also as part of a cultural revolution,” says the Rossoblú technical director Walter Sabatini.
The Italian club’s status as a sleeping giant has lingered too long and their huge investment is designed to recapture the halcyon days. They hold seven Serie A titles – six between 1925 and 1941, but the last back in 1964.
Hickey flies into the Bolognese razzmatazz in typically unflustered fashion. He knows no other mindset. He isn’t daunted joining an ambitious top-flight Italian team at the tender age of 18. Just like he wasn’t fazed marking James Forrest in a Scottish Cup final aged 16.
Those who coached him at Riccarton fully expect him to handle this Italian job. “For a kid that age, he has as good a level of football intelligence as I’ve ever seen,” says Liam Fox, who left Hearts last month. “He does the right things at the right time, knows where to be, and that calmness is always there.
“He is going into a totally different environment. It may take him a period of time to adjust to the way of life, the culture and the type of training. If there’s anybody from that group of Hearts youngsters who could handle it, because he is so laid back and calm, I’d say it’s Aaron.
“The key is he is a good football player. If you’re a good player in Scotland, you can be a good player in Italy. Yes, there could be outside influences. He will need to avoid injury and continue living his life correctly with gym work and everything else.
“He will get support from his club so I’m not concerned about him going there. I hope he goes on and reaches the levels he could do.”
Italy’s intense footballing culture isn’t the same as even the most raucous evening at Tynecastle Park. Managers and players being smuggled out of Serie A grounds in car boots to avoid baying fans isn’t uncommon after poor results.
Hickey won’t be exposed to that initially. Bologna will use him as deputy left-back to the Dutchman Mitchell Dijks. The prospect of forcing himself into Sinisa Mihajlovic’s team in another position shouldn’t be dismissed, though. Many see him evolving into a holding midfield player.
“I think he could become a player in that role,” says Fox. “If he develops physically, he could be a really good centre-back as well. He played right side of a back three for Hearts against St Mirren under Craig [Levein] and absolutely strolled it.
“He’s a diamond of a kid. He’s absolutely horizontal in terms of being laid back, but he has real quality. One of his biggest assets is that calmness and ability to make consistently good decisions under pressure.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him flustered or nervous. You don’t have to spend too much time with him, watching video clips or analysing things, because he consistently makes the right decisions.
“He has a really advanced football brain for his age. If he gets done for pace, he then works out that he needs to be deeper off his opponent. He actually processes the information himself. He is low-maintenance and I think he will go on to have a really top career.
“In the build-up to that cup final last year, I didn’t sense any nerves from him. Nothing. That was the moment I thought, ‘he’s got a top temperament for this’. I’d say he was arguably the best player on the park that day.”
The rise to prominence has been seismic. Hickey visited Bologna and Bayern Munich recently knowing he would never complete the final year of his Hearts contract.
A transfer fee of £1.78m, even minus Celtic’s 30 per cent sell-on fee, leaves the Edinburgh club with a tidy sum. The player himself probably won’t be remotely interested in those details. “He hardly ever spoke,” laughs Fox. “Aaron just loves playing the game. Good luck to him.”
If he plays the game to his full potential over the coming years, he could assume a major role in Bologna’s renaissance.
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