Comment: What next for Hearts starlet Aaron Hickey after first-team breakthrough?
Aaron Hickey's performance against Celtic in the Scottish Cup final raised eyebrows. Joel Sked looks at what's next for the 16-year-old.
A little over 15 minutes into the William Hill Scottish Cup final Hearts left-back Aaron Hickey ran on to a Peter Haring pass in the Celtic half with acres of space in front of him.
It is the sort of enticing situation that no matter your footballing ability you look ahead, glance around and weigh everything up, 'aye, I'm having a dig'.
Then, for a moment, he appeared to remember where he was. It seemed that the occasion crossed his mind, leading to a split second of hesitation. But then he threw off the shackles and skidded a shot at Scott Bain.
What happened next spoke of a player at ease with his surroundings. At just 16.
At that age you should be terrified of speaking in front of your school class. You should be doubting yourself when trying to operate the oven. Bravery at that age is chancing your luck in the pub.
Out of position against the best player in the league, Celtic goalkeeper Bain noticed the situation, launching the ball in behind Hickey for Forrest to chase. Most players, no matter the experience, would desperately hack the ball away back to their own goal or out for a throw-in, to safety.
Not Hickey. He followed the ball's flight. Ushered his body into position between it and Forrest, and in one seamless movement gained control, turned away and got Hearts on the front foot. A calm pass to Arnaud Djoum was followed by an attempted foray forward.
It could have been youthful indulgence but a more reasoned answer, using the evidence we have from his three Hearts appearances, was of a player belonging, of being right where his talent dictates.
Watching on from the stands at Hampden Park, you were required to remind yourself and those around you that this is a boy, just 16, such was the serenity in which he played with.
Everything Craig Levein said after the player's debut against Aberdeen was on show.
“He doesn’t look out of place with the first team," the Heart boss had said. "He is two-footed, he is competitive, he is quick and he has a great calmness in possession. He is a really good player with a good temperament."
The full-time whistle may have been met with disappointment among the Hearts support but there was also pride with Hickey one of the positives from the 2-1 defeat.
The player has provoked intrigue with talk around the club and those who watch the youth teams that the club have a redoubtable talent on their hands.
He only made the transition into full-time from school a year ago to join the Riccarton academy having returned from a short spell at Celtic.
Such has been the trajectory of his career and confidence of the management team he was named on the bench for the first-team in December; one of six substitute appearances before his debut after and then first start against Celtic the following week.
Going forward, into pre-season training and the start of the next campaign, there is an excitement that Hearts have a player who is ready to fill the problem left-back position and become a mainstay in the defence.
The old adage of 'if you're good enough you're old enough' carries a certain weight. However, that is a very simple take on a complex situation. At 16, Hickey is still growing, still filling out. He mentioned it to STV Sport in the aftermath of the final that he needed to get "in the gym to get bigger and stronger".
The player doesn't need to be handled with kids gloves, but he certainly needs to be handled with care. Too much too soon can hamper and even ruin careers, both physically and mentally.
Team-mate Harry Cochrane can be used as an example of the difficulties regarding the development of a talented but still physically maturing player. After 24 first-team appearances last season that has dropped to eight this term, the midfielder suffering both knee and ankle troubles.
Looking ahead Hickey should be part of the first-team squad knowing that there will likely be opportunities for him. Ben Garuccio will be out until the new year with Aidy White likely earmarked for the left-back position after his own travails with injury.
Fans will understandably pine for Hickey to be used often but the next two seasons should be seen as developmental. It is the ideal position for the teenager. To not have that expectation as a starter but able to put pressure and push the player in front of him.
The way he plays nothing will likely faze him, even the demands of the Tynecastle crowds.
In time a loan could be an option but the early signs are that Hickey will put forward a good case to grasp a starting berth sooner rather than later, especially if he develops physically the way Kieran Tierney did in the early stages of his Celtic career.
It may even be the case that he is used elsewhere when or if required. After all he is ambidextrous and versatile, capable of playing at right-back as well as in the centre of the pitch where he was fielded for Celtic, perhaps due to the "calmness" in possession which Levein has talked about.
Hickey is yet another bright teenager to emerge from the reinvigorated youth academy since Ann Budge gained control of the club and installed Levein as director of football.
The Hearts boss said: “I can’t wait to get him, Connor Smith and Harry Cochrane playing on a regular basis. They will just be able to play the way they play. There is no fear in their football. We are seeing some glimpses of that now but it will be a couple of years before we see all the benefits.”
Levein knows better than most, having watched these players develop, and it is hard for fans to temper similar excitement, but it is the final comment, "a couple of years before we see all the benefits", which is of most importance.
Enjoy Hickey's development, along with the other teenagers, and in a couple of years they could be dominating a Scottish Cup final before bringing it back to Gorgie as legends.