What made Aaron Hickey the most exciting Hearts prospect in almost a decade
What were you doing at 16? Preparing for exams? Dreaming about asking out that guy/girl you fancy? Getting completely wasted on cheap bottles of cider down the local park and thanking your lucky stars that you weren't born in the age of camera phones?
There's one thing you sure as hell weren't doing, and that's starting in a Scottish Cup final.
That's the situation Aaron Hickey found himself in as Hearts prepared for their 2019 Hampden clash with Celtic. Despite playing in just two games prior to the match, his first start coming against the same side the week before, he was counted on to help give his club the best chance of claiming football's oldest trophy. From an individual perspective, things could scarcely have gone any better.
He's often credited with having James Forrest, player of the year for the 2018/19 season, firmly in his back pocket during the Hampden showpiece. That assessment isn't entirely accurate. Forrest did have a very quiet game, but that was mainly down to the winger playing in a weirdly passive manner. He only once tried to take on Hickey down the wing and actually got the better of the full-back, whipping in a poor cross that Christophe Berra easily cleared. For whatever reason, he didn't try it again the rest of the game.
Though Hickey lost that brief battle, he undoubtedly won the war against the Scotland international. Simply, Forrest was poor and Hickey definitely wasn’t.
To say he was completely unfazed by the gravity of it all would be an understatement. There were barely 90 seconds on the clock before he tried to dribble past Celtic captain Scott Brown. His most impressive moment came in the 16th minute. After trying his luck from distance he sprinted back to stop Scott Bain's attempt to release Forrest down the right. Hickey caught up to the ball, intercepted it and then made a cool turn away from his man to start another attack.
“Aaron Hickey has had a really good season, culminating in coming off the bench against Aberdeen and then starting at Celtic Park last week," manager Craig Levein said before the match. "In both of those games he was unflappable and I was really impressed by his composure."
He also played a significant role in Hearts opening the scoring, playing the pass to Arnaud Djoum on the edge of the penalty area. It wasn't a simple five-yard ball as well. He had to move away from the attentions of Mikael Lustig before splitting two defenders with the pass for the Cameroon international.
Ultimately Hearts would lose the game due to a combination of bad refereeing, Peter Haring going off injured and the team failing to keep their collective cool after going in front, but fans raved about Hickey long into the night.
Speaking about his own performance after the match, the youngster said: "It gives me confidence but I still have to keep my head down, work every day in training and in the gym to get bigger and stronger.”
It was the perfect attitude to have and exactly what he took into the next campaign. He was noticeably bigger when the clubs returned for the Betfred Cup campaign just two months later and ready to deal with the physical rigours of regular first-team football.
As impressive as the cup final performance was, last season was arguably even more so. At least Hearts played with a high level of competency in the final. Last season was an eight-month physical comedy performance in matching maroon tops. Fans will often clamour for young players to be given a chance when they see their team struggling, while managers will urge caution over the possibility that they could ruin a young player's confidence by throwing them into an environment in which they're unable to thrive.
Hickey managed not just to avoid being dragged down into the deepest levels of football misery by his team-mates, he was able to stand out as their second best player over the course of the campaign behind Michael Smith. Going forward he could sometimes be a little hesitant - he needs to learn 'a move' to get past opposing defenders with the ball at his feet - but defensively he played like someone ten years his senior.
Even though his time in the Hearts first-team was relatively short compared with other talents that have come through the academy in the last ten years – Callum Paterson being the brightest shining light since 2010 – he still managed to write himself into Tynecastle folklore with a derby winner at Easter Road, not to mention an assist and an excellent performance in the 3-1 win at the same ground later in the season.
Even in games where he struggled initially he would come back stronger within the space of the 90 minutes. The 1-1 home draws with Rangers and Motherwell are two examples. In the former he was at fault for the opener; the latter troubled by the strength and pace of the away side's wingers. In each game he rebounded to have strong second halves. He didn't dwell on his first-half deficiencies. He appears to have no short-term memory; a very useful trait for a defender.
Now 18, moving to a foreign country after his move to Bologna yesterday, different culture, new style of play, team-mates, coaches, it's going to be very hard for him. But considering his strengths - the short memory, the poise, the technical ability - and the tests he’d passed with flying colours already, you would not back against his time in Italy being a roaring success.