Throughout a tumultuous time at Tynecastle, one of the few things Hearts fans, managers and coaches have been unified on is the view that their young defender Aaron Hickey is a star in the making.
That opinion has been endorsed by several high level scouts, with Manchester City among those still keen on adding him to their books, which is why work is ongoing to extend a contract that already ties him to Gorgie until summer 2021.
So far Hearts have failed to wrap up a deal and they are braced for a bid this month, as interested parties from south of the Border race to beat the deadline to have him classed as a home-grown player.
English Premier League squads must include at least eight home-grown players, and players must have been with an English club for three years prior to the age of 21 to qualify for that status. Hickey turns 18 in June, so time is running out for interested buyers.
The teenager has been praised several times by new manager Daniel Stendel, pictured, who, unimpressed by much of what he has inherited on the playing side of things, has struggled to dole out much positivity in his limited time at the helm. But the German is simply the latest to acknowledge the ability and mental acuity of the young man whose performances in the Scottish top flight have belied his years.
“The remarkable thing about him is that most young players are raved about because they come into a team that is doing really well and that gives them the confidence because the rest of the team have that,” said Austin MacPhee, the former assistant manager who held the fort between the departure of Craig Levein, who promoted Hickey to the first team, and the arrival of Stendel.
“Aaron has come into a team that is not doing really well. And yet he has stayed in the team. He has had to get in the car – if he even has a car – and had to go home on the back of defeats. And he has had to play in a stadium where the players aren’t necessarily in the best place, yet he has consistently taken the ball and played well. Also in massive games at Parkhead and the cup final last year.
“Very rarely does a young player come into a team that is not over-performing and stay in the team. That’s because naturally you change things because the team is not winning. But Aaron has been a constant.”
That assessment has been echoed by Hickey’s current boss, who admits that, given his age, he should be trying to rest him up. But Stendel says the full-back’s performances have made it impossible to leave him out. And, while more experienced pros have gone into their shells as victories remain elusive, the teenager has shown remarkable resolve and willingness to take the ball and on-field responsibility when others have shied away.
“He has incredible resilience for a young guy. I see him as being a bit different in that respect,” said MacPhee, who is still employed at Tynecastle. “I don’t think he is too affected by the outside world. There have also been games where it hasn’t gone perfectly for Aaron but his resilience after a mistake has been fantastic. In the first half against Rangers at Tynecastle [a 1-1 draw in October] they played on him a lot and he made a couple of small mistakes. I think he actually lost [Alfredo] Morelos for the goal, a corner flicked on and Aaron let him come off the back of him. But, in the second half he was brilliant.
“I have seen that in a few games, he has made an error and been fantastic. That tells you a lot about his character – he has seen it as a motivation not a reason to shy away from the game. I think he is a fantastic player.”
His versatility is a big asset too. Having already filled in across the back line in a back three and four, he is content in a more advanced role as well, with MacPhee confident he could even play as a defensive midfielder in the mould of Sergio Busquets, the celebrated Barcelona and Spain veteran.
“He is so young that he could play in a lot of positions. He could end up being a Busquets kind of figure too,” added MacPhee. “He actually reminds me a lot of Jonny Evans, who I have seen in training. The way he defends, and he always wants the ball as a defender. Jonny has spent some of his career at left-back, at centre-back and also defensive midfield. Even the way he moves, he reminds me of him.”
He may have further growing to do, but greater height is not required, according to MacPhee, even if he is to play at centre-back, and even if he does move on to the English Premier League.
“He must already be six foot tall and the best teams now… even Guardiola has made Fernandinho into a centre-back at Man City. He made [Joshua] Kimmich into a centre-back, at 5ft 9, at Bayern Munich and [Javier] Mascherano played there [for Guardiola at Barcelona]. It will be interesting to see where he ends up but he is certainly a young player I would hang my hat on.”
Hearts want to keep hold of him, of course, but they may have to fend off some big offers to do so.