Aidan Smith: Aaron Hickey not your average 16-year-old on Cup final Saturday

Many 16-year-old lads woke up this morning, having probably not slept much the night before, and the first thing they did was put on a Hearts strip. Aaron Hickey was among them.

Hearts' Aaron Hickey shows his frustration as Celtic equalise. Pic: SNS/Craig WIlliamson
Hearts' Aaron Hickey shows his frustration as Celtic equalise. Pic: SNS/Craig WIlliamson

Some will have had a fry-up on the strict order of their mums. It was going to be a long day of probably wildly varying emotions. Some will have stopped for a burger en route to Hampden and a few might even have sneaked in a wee drink of something illegal for youths of such tender years - just to calm the cup final collywobbles. But Hickey didn’t do any of that because he was playing. In the game. Left-back against James Forrest. That’s right, the double player of the year. At 16.

Everyone thought the crafty fox, Craig Levein, would spring a team-sheet surprise and some even wondered if Steven Naismith, who was definitely, indisputably and unequivocally ruled out through injury, might miraculously appear. But there was Hickey’s name, which was more than you could find in the match programme. There were pen-portraits of the rest of the squad but not him.

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Well, this wasn’t going to be boring, as a Hearts left-back from yesteryear, Gary Naysmith, had suggested. To be fair to the cup-winner from 1998 he wasn’t saying the final would be boring, merely that some of us - everyone not supporting Celtic, basically - were getting a bit fed up of the Hoops plundering all the available silverware.

As the match began amid firecracker reek, you thought Hearts might have devised a playlist which would capture this feeling and, hopefully for them, inspire a performance to end the ennui, which is Gorgie for boring.

Maybe Being Boring by the Pet Shop Boys would be in the compilation and Nothing Ever Happens by Del Amitri and Eartha Kitt’s Monotonous and I’m Bored by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and of course the punk rock classic Boredom by the Buzzcocks.

All of them, of course, pre-dated junior Jambo Hickey by several years. One of the first to congratulate him on his start - only his second-ever - was actor Colin McCredie who tweeted: “A fairytale! Seems like only yesterday he was kicking a ball up & down our street!”. The academy kid, with his bouncy hair, didn’t quite look old enough to have been on the receiving end of a hickey, but nowadays you can’t be too sure. He would have been hoping for a calming early touch. It didn’t come but then Forrest wasn’t involved in the opening flurries anyway.

Scott Brown, hunting down his 20th medal, had no need of such reassurances and was soon urging team-mates towards the treble treble, applauding wildly when Kristoffer Ajer crashed into a tackle near the dugouts then offering a friendly wave to Levein. Or something like that.

In the 15th minute Hickey joined the attack and hit a low trundler as Hearts, bidding for what Levein called their single single, grew into the final. They played a percentage game, breaking when they could with speed and snap, then everyone behind the ball at other times.

With Mikael Lustig thundering into Ryan Edwards and Brown having a full and frank exchange of views with anyone and everyone this was the fierce final that had been expected. The Celtic players all wore No 5 on their shorts in memory of Billy McNeill. Asked to explain some waist-high challenges by Willie Collum they could have answered: “Sorry, ref, I was thinking we were back in big Billy’s era.”

But the game was going exactly as Levein must have hoped if Hearts were to stop the Hoops from gorging on a triple-decked feast, denying Brown and his men access to the all-you-can-win buffet. His team just had to seize their opportunity when it came.

In the 52nd minute they did, Hickey in his shocking green boots being twice involved in a bout of pressure, slipping the ball to Arnaud Djoum who fed Sean Clare and a smart back-heel set up Edwards to jab home.

The maroon-and-white end of the old ground exploded. The popular view was that their favourites would have been out of the contest by that stage: instead they were shaping up to be Scottish football’s biggest ever party-poopers. But Hearts could only hold onto their lead for nine minutes.

It was strange, and doubtless devastating to Christophe Berra who’d marshalled his defence superbly, for Celtic to have achieved their equaliser and then their winner down the middle of the park, without them having to construct meaningful attacks. Hearts tried to hit back, and Hickey who’d look to have been suffering from cramp, found renewed energy to aid the cause.

Brown was magnificent and it was his thrilling dribble into the Hearts box - a throwback to his time at Hibernian and his very first medal - which sparked the fightback. But Berra was magnificent too, galloping into the centre-forward position to throw himself at a cross in injury time, his valiant effort being greeted with thunderous applause.

These two warriors won’t see many more days like this but young Aaron Hickey surely will.

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