From starting the Scottish Cup final for Heart of Midlothian aged just 16 to becoming a regular in the Premier League with Brentford, Aaron Hickey has been touted for a move to one of Europe's elite in the future.

It is a period which has seen him establish himself as a key member of Steve Clarke's Scotland squad and score five goals in a Serie A season with Bologna before his £14million move to England. Yet, he is not someone Hearts take full credit in developing, owing to a lengthy spell with Celtic during his academy years. Nor was he someone the club were able to fully reap the benefits in terms of transfer fee.

You have to go back to 2011 for the last time the club received a seven-figure sum for the sale of an academy product, Lee Wallace to Rangers. While the lack of impact at first-team level by academy graduates is a frustration, both amongst the fans and the club. It is something the club are striving to improve.  

READ MORE: How Hearts B is providing a key pathway and its future

It is nearly ten years since the academy suffered from neglect as Vladimir Romanov's time in charge of the club came to an almost catastrophic end. It is now in a far healthier state but the next step is seeing more players conquer that pathway.

"I’ve had a few fans asking me if we should do the Brentford, cancel the academy and invest the money in the first team," sporting director Joe Savage told Hearts Standard. "I don’t believe that. A capital city club like ourselves should always have an academy. There are thousands of young Hearts boys and girls desperate to play for our academy, desperate to become first-team players, desperate to come all the way through like Craig Gordon into the first-team. I’m a firm believer in that.

"I think the academy at the moment is thriving. If you are judging it on the Scotland call-ups we have a lot of kids, boys and girls, in the coaching camps. There are always three, four, five, six in and around it. That is a great sign."

Savage knows how special it is to become an academy player at a club as prestigious as Hearts having started his pro youth with the club as a 13-year-old. The academy and B team form part of his responsibilities at the club. He brought Frankie McAvoy to Hearts as academy director in 2022. Now first-team coach, McAvoy made tweaks to how the club operate in the youth sphere, namely with the recruitment of youngsters.

Hearts Standard:

"Previously you could argue we went down too much of a technical side," Savage said. "Too many players who were really good on the ball but not as good athletically as you would want them to be. The game is about speed and pace, whether people like that or not, the best players in the world are technically brilliant but can also run, they are all so quick. There is not one [Premier League player] you would fancy yourself to beat in a race. The modern game, that’s the way it has gone. The sports science data, we know everything with the GPS, everything the players are doing, maximum heart rate, how fast they can. Everything is geared towards that.

"We’ve helped transform the academy into that sort of thinking because it wasn’t thinking about that beforehand. You can say Covid didn’t help, that meant we had a couple of problems so by that point when the decision was made for Frankie McAvoy to come in we looked at the bigger picture, the infrastructure of the coaching, the style and the set up, we made a few subtle changes that I think will benefit us in the longer term.

"He wanted to keep signing technical players but try to get more athletic players, players who have good running distances, good stamina and can hit the box, get up and down the pitch. Frankie has been a coach in England and will tell you that some of the best teams in the Championship are full of athletes. We don’t want to sign a team of athletes but it is very, very important now in football. The quicker you can run, the quicker you can get up the pitch, the quicker you can score goals, the quicker you can counter attack teams. We are not looking for Linford Christies but players that athletically we know have the capabilities of playing and getting stronger and more physical. That was a subtle difference we made. Frankie made a couple of changes to the coaching, brought a couple in. New ideas, fresh ideas."

Hearts Standard:

Now the academy director role has been taken on by Andrew Webster, a Scottish Cup winner in 2012, viewed as "an important appointment". Former academy player Angus Beith is the head of the performance school at the club while Lee Wallace has recently been involved with a view to a potential role. It has been a "conscious effort" from Savage to have former Hearts players in and around the academy, guys with experiences that will be helpful to the club's youngsters.

As well as investment in personnel and the B team - "the biggest thing that has happened to us" - the club also purchased the bistro at the Oriam where the players of tomorrow rub shoulders with the stars of today. Savage believes it is a valuable addition, while confirming there are "ongoing discussions" with the Oriam as the club seek to ensure it suits a "high-performing football club"  if they extend the partnership beyond 2029.

In the meantime, having the bistro allows the club to provide the very best nutrition. One facet of helping develop the next generation.

"England were ahead of us with the finances and resources," Savage said. "They really make sure they push the gym. They push the players to be in the gym doing the extra work. The nutrition is massive, their diet is huge, making sure they are eating the right foods. Up here we are getting there.

"Our programme, what we’ve got set up in the academy, the kids are in the gym all the time, we bought the bistro, best signing the club has made, getting the bistro done. All the players are there, first-team, B team, women’s team, academy, performance school, everyone is mixing together. You see some of the kids looking up to first-team players ‘that’s what a footballer looks like’. They are the only ones who can improve upon that. We are not asking them to be absolute beasts, have six packs but just that their core body strength needs to be better to cope with the rigours of the game because they are playing so many games now that the body has to be physically strong but also mentally strong, we’ve got psychiatrists as well that look after the players’ needs.

"We are open to talking to them all the time. There is so much that goes into being a footballer. People think you just turn up and kick a ball about a pitch, that’s not it anymore, not nowadays. There is so much that goes into being the best you can be. We are trying to create that pathway as best we can."

READ MORE: How recruitment works at Hearts and the transfer process

Supporters. of course, want to know which players they should be keeping an eye on coming through. While Savage believes fans should be excited he is understandably reluctant to name names, wary of how quickly things can change and how the development of players is far from linear.

"We believe we are a very good team now," he said. "We believe the level to play for our first-team is very high. The kids who come through have to be of a certain level. We also understand if you don’t develop players for Hearts’ first-team you want to make sure you develop good players for other teams, to have a career because a lot of the kids don’t have careers. They get disillusioned, end up losing their way and don’t want to play football anymore because they get released. We make sure we help them on that side, help them transition over. If that’s a different career, fine, but if they want to try another club to get a full-time contract with them that’s an important thing for young footballers because I have seen so many times young kids getting so upset when they don’t get selected or don’t get that contract. Setbacks pave the way for comebacks. That should be the way.

"Looking at our academy we want to make sure our academy is the best academy we can produce and deliver for us as a club. We all know it is about delivering players. I won’t name names because I don’t want to put pressure on them, but we have got a few coming through at the moment we have got high hopes for that we can see the pathway, can see them making the first-team. It may be a year, two or three years' time. Steven [Naismith] was crucial to that. Steven’s role with the B team. He took some of the sessions with the 18s last season to try to get a feel of bringing the boys up to the B team, get a feel of the environment and it has helped massively."

READ MORE: Denholm's Hearts journey: From playing for Grandma's petrol money to top of the world

Aidan Denholm has made tentative steps with the first-team, playing in Europe, featuring in the Viaplay Cup semi-final and starting in the Premiership. Macaulat Tait, a diminutive midfielder with ball-carrying qualities, is well liked by Naismith. A handful of other B team players have been involved with first-team training. It is up to the club to provide a platform for them to make that next step. And it is up to them to take advantage of it.

"Just because we tip someone now it might not be the same in two years’ time, somebody might have bypassed them, somebody might have got stronger, bigger, quicker than them," Savage said. "Everybody develops differently. That is something I noticed in England. You look at some players, he is a bit skinny, a bit smaller then a year later you see him in the gym and he’s massive. He’s done all the work, his nutrition is excellent and he has paid attention, his attitude has been great and he steps above the person you tipped to be the one. I learned my lesson quite quickly down there, don’t judge them too soon, give them an opportunity. That’s why the two year, three year contracts are key for them because some are late bloomers, late developers.

"[Former Hearts coach] John Rankin always used to say to me that when they first come in full-time, that first six months is an absolute blur to them. They’ve come from school where it’s quite easy in terms of physically because they don’t need to do training all the time and they come into a full-time environment where they are training, their body is changing, they are getting stronger and bigger, they need to eat more.

"There are a few exciting ones, but I don’t want to put too much on them just now. I just want them to enjoy being full-time footballers to start with and then once they are in and around the B team… Liam Fox is a very good coach, he’s got a very good idea of the game and how he wants to play. And look at how well the B team are doing just now. We believe there are a few that could potentially put pressure on our first team."