Aaron Hickey: How a trying evening unfolded for Scotland's latest starter - better days ahead

Aaron Hickey will have better days in a Scotland jersey in an international career which has the potential to stretch out long and fruitfully ahead of him.

A dejected Aaron Hickey during Scotland's 3-1 defeat to Ukraine in the World Cup play-off semi-final.
A dejected Aaron Hickey during Scotland's 3-1 defeat to Ukraine in the World Cup play-off semi-final.

But it has started in a manner all too familiar to the older hands and previous generations whose failure to reach the World Cup finals will now stretch to at least 28 years.

No matter how many caps he goes on to win, Hickey is unlikely to forget his first starting appearance for his country in a hurry.

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On a night when too many of Steve Clarke’s players were unable to bring their ‘A’ game to the table when it was needed, Hickey must hope this was the kind of painful learning curve which can mould him into the kind of top-level performer Scotland need far more of in order to return to world football’s biggest stage.

With Nathan Patterson losing his race to recover from an ankle injury in time, one of Clarke’s biggest calls was who would replace him as right wing-back.

In ignoring the claims of Motherwell’s Stephen O’Donnell, who has previously served him well in that role, and Celtic’s Anthony Ralston – who was not even named among the substitutes – Clarke placed his faith in the undoubted talent but relatively untested adaptability of Hickey.

Naturally a left-back, Hickey played at right-back just once for Bologna during a Serie A campaign which earned him rave reviews and is now seeing him strongly linked with a £21 million move to Arsenal.

The former Hearts man was deployed on the right of midfield by Bologna five times towards the end of the season, including matches against Juventus and AC Milan, but this was a high profile occasion for the 19-year-old to perform in such a role.

Hickey struggled to recover from an uncomfortable start to the match which saw Ukrainian wide midfielder Viktor Tysgankov causing him all sorts of problems.

Opportunities for Hickey to get forward and showcase his attacking threat were limited as the visitors controlled possession and were by far the more composed and cohesive side.

Andriy Yarmolenko’s perfectly executed 33rd-minute lob over Craig Gordon gave Ukraine an overdue lead they more than deserved as Scotland’s defensive set-up was exposed time and again.

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Hopes of a second-half revival were spiked by Roman Yaremchuk’s 49th-minute header, Hickey caught on his heels and outmuscled by the Benfica striker as he easily won the aerial duel.

To Hickey’s credit, he did not shrink or let his head drop. A recovery already appeared well beyond the Scots but as they desperately tried to find a route back, Hickey was suddenly more prominent in the opposition’s half of the pitch.

He helped force Ukraine onto the back foot for a sustained period with one terrific burst forward which saw him unlucky not to pick out Che Adams inside the box.

When John McGinn inconceivably sent a header wide from little more than a couple of yards out, Scotland’s World Cup dream was fading fast.

It was briefly revived by Callum McGregor’s 79th minute goal, the ball crossing the line by the finest of margins.

But despite Scotland’s frantic efforts to force extra-time, it was Ukraine who sealed a play-off final against Wales in Cardiff on Sunday when substitute Artem Dovbyk scored their stoppage-time third.