In October 2020, during his first few weeks at Bologna after signing from Hearts, Aaron Hickey questioned whether he’d made the right decision to swap Scotland for Northern Italy.
Team meetings, conducted in Italian by manager Siniša Mihajlović, would pass him by as he struggled to cope with the language barrier.
Away from the training ground, Italy’s Covid-19 restrictions added to the sense of isolation.
“The first year was quite hard,” says Aaron, who was also coveted by Bayern Munich prior to making the move to Bologna.
“I went straight into the team because the left-back, Mitchell Dijks, had been sent off and then picked up an injury. I managed to go in and play a couple of games, then Dijks came back and started playing ahead of me. I then got another opportunity but had some shoulder injuries.
“The first year was during lockdown, so nothing was open and I couldn’t really see what Italy was about. I also couldn’t get home because flights weren’t running.
“Lockdown and the language barrier made it hard, but as with anything you get used to it after a while. I just knew that I had to get through it. I liked going to training, it was just my spare time that I found quite difficult.
“I went back to Scotland that summer, freshened myself up and made sure that I was ready to push on again.”
And that he did. Aaron missed just two league games for Bologna during the 2021/22 campaign.
Clocking up 2,835 minutes, he was the most-used player under the age of 21 in Serie A.
When he opened his Bologna account with a 20-yard strike in a 2-2 draw with Genoa last September, he became just the fourth Scot to score in Italy's top flight.
Graeme Souness, Joe Jordan, Denis Law. Aaron’s goal gained him entry to an exclusive club.
“I got five goals and I’ve got good memories of those,” Aaron smiles.
“It’s crazy. To be with those names is a great achievement for me - I'm really proud.
“I didn’t even know I played that many games! Going around Italy and playing at different stadiums was a massive experience.
“Playing at the San Siro is like playing at the Colosseum! I liked [Paolo] Maldini and his long hair when I was growing up [Laughs]. Playing there was class.
“My cousins were there for that game because they were in Milan for a holiday. They were sat way up at the top, looking down on me on the pitch. I must have looked like a wee dot! It was another thing that I’d dreamt of, playing in big games against big teams in big stadiums.
"It is very defensive and tactical in Italy, but I didn’t mind it. It’s good to learn these things and it was a change from playing in Scotland.”
Aaron, who has four Scotland caps having made his international debut against Poland in March, did his research before joining Bologna.
He visited the club’s training ground, as well as Bayern's.
Ultimately, it was Bologna's willingness to include Aaron in their First Team squad that swayed him; Bayern - European champions at the time – were only willing to put him in their reserve team.
It wasn’t the first time that Aaron had turned down a bigger club in favour of First Team football.
“I started off at Hearts when I was really young – I would’ve been around ten when I joined and I stayed until I was 12,” Aaron recalls.
“Then I went to Celtic because it was my boyhood club. I went there for a good four years.
“Celtic offered me a contract, but I wasn’t playing much. I thought there would be a better opportunity for me to play at Hearts.
“Being young, you have to play football. You have to make the right decisions.”
Aaron returned to Tynecastle in 2018. In the penultimate game of the 2018/19 Scottish Premiership season, at the age of 16, he made his senior debut in a 2-1 defeat at Aberdeen.
“It was an amazing feeling,” says Aaron, “I’d dreamt of becoming a football player, so I was buzzing.
“Off the pitch I was a wee bit like, ‘I’m up with the big players here’, but as soon as we went on to the pitch it just felt normal. It was just a game of football.”
He then started the following match, a 2-1 loss at Celtic.
“The manager [Craig Levein] thought I did okay against Aberdeen, so he put me in for the Celtic game at Parkhead in front of 60,000.
“That was class – I loved every minute of it. It was a sell-out at their stadium. I remember getting cramp during the last half an hour! [Laughs]
“I had a few of my pals in the Hearts end and I think my dad was in the Celtic end!”
A week later, when the sides met again, Aaron became the youngest player to start a Scottish Cup final in the modern era as Hearts were beaten 2-1 at Hampden. He was still just 16.
“That was a big one,” says Aaron.
“It was a tight game, and we got the first goal, but they obviously went on to win the match. I thought we did so well – it was a good game for us.
“Because we’d gone to Parkhead the week before, and we’d only lost 2-1 and played well during the first half, we’d gained a bit of confidence. We took that into the next one.
“Before the final, when I went to have a look at the pitch and the stadium, the first team coach [Liam Fox] came up to me and said, ‘Just treat it like a reserve game’. The 50,000 fans inside the stadium made that a wee bit difficult!”
After finishing 2018/19 with a flourish, Aaron picked up where he left off the following season.
The full-back played the full 90 minutes in three of Hearts’ opening four games (all Scottish League Cup fixtures) but hit a speed bump when he returned to Aberdeen in early August.
When Jamie Walker’s poked finish made it 2-1 to Hearts with just 14 minutes remaining, the Edinburgh side looked set to begin the new Scottish Premiership season with a win, but Aaron’s dismissal in the 78th minute turned the game on its head.
Sam Cosgrove converted from the spot two minutes later for the hosts, before Ryan Hedges crashed home a winner.
“I was gutted after that game,” says Aaron, “it was stupid, but I was young. It wasn’t a bad challenge, but it was a foul and I was already on a yellow card.
“As I was walking down the tunnel, I heard them score. Then they scored again. I just felt terrible for the team.
“I knew that people were going to be annoyed with me, but I think because I was young people let me get away with it. One of my friends [Connor Smith], who is my age, came down and asked if I was alright and helped me a bit.
“Afterwards I just knew that I had to move on and learn from the mistake.”
Aaron made amends the following month when Hearts, still looking for their first league win of the season, visited near neighbours Hibernian.
Stephen Mallan's long-range drive had given Hibs the lead, before Uche Ikpeazu netted an equaliser.
Aaron’s looping shot – with six minutes left on the clock – earned his side a priceless victory and sparked delirium in the away end.
He seems only too happy to relive that moment.
“That was class,” Aaron says with an ear-to-ear grin.
“That goal is a big highlight of my life. When I was a young boy at Hearts, I used to go to my local pitch and pretend to score in a Hearts v Hibs derby. I’d run away celebrating like the fans were going mental!
“I always dreamt of doing that, then it became true. That was a major moment for me.
“In Scotland, people look at Celtic and Rangers. That is obviously the major derby, but people miss out on Hibs v Hearts. That game is right up there. They just don’t like each other!
“The atmosphere at those games, at both stadiums, lets you know that you’re in a big game. It’s enjoyable to play in.”
Hearts’ victory at Easter Road was a rare highlight in a challenging campaign.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Premiership was curtailed on 18 May 2020, with average points per game used to determine final league positions
Hearts, with an average of 0.77 points per game, were relegated to the Championship.
“It was weird because there were still some games left to play, but they were cancelled and we were told that we would just have to go down to the Championship. Nobody was happy about that,” says Aaron.
“As much as I like Hearts - they’re a great club and the fans are great - I just knew that if I went down to the Championship and came back up then I was only going to be in the same position.
“I wanted to go and progress, to try and get better and see where I could go.”
Aaron’s subsequent move to Bologna provided him with a springboard to the Premier League, but the full-back was on Brentford’s radar even before his spell in Serie A.
“Aaron was basically identified because he was a very young player playing senior select football,” Lee Dykes, who heads up the Bees’ scouting department, told The Times.
“We did a lot of work on him in the 2019/20 year. We didn’t have a gap for him, but we kept that work going.
“When he made the move to Italy that was looked upon as a credit to him, as it’s a difficult move.
“Aaron has achieved so much up to this point, and he has so much to achieve going forward. I think everyone should be excited because he’s a tremendous young player.”
Given what we’ve seen from the defender during the opening weeks of the season, few would argue with Brentford’s technical director.
But Aaron’s performances should come as no surprise. Moving to the Premier League is perhaps the biggest challenge of his fledgling career, but he’s already shown his ability to swim when thrown in at the deep end.