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Aaron Hickey, Lewis Ferguson, Josh Doig: Why Bologna and other Serie A clubs are targeting young Scottish players

Josh Doig and Lewis Ferguson have become the latest young Scottish players to move to Serie A; Aaron Hickey’s success at Bologna, who sold him to Brentford for an initial £14m, two years after signing him from Hearts for £1.5m, has encouraged other Italian clubs


When Aaron Hickey found the net in a 2-2 draw between Bologna and Genoa last September, he became only the fourth Scottish player to score a goal in Italy’s Serie A. The others? Joe Jordan, Graeme Souness and Denis Law. It had been a while.

Hickey, a £1.5m signing from Hearts a year earlier, went on to score another four goals over the course of the campaign, breaking into the Scottish national team and attracting interest from a host of suitors before his £18m move to Brentford.

The full-back's success in Italy has helped open the door to others.

Former Celtic midfielder Liam Henderson, whose arrival in Italy predated Hickey's by two years, appeared in every one of Empoli's Serie A fixtures last season, while Aberdeen's Lewis Ferguson, 22, and Hibernian's Josh Doig, 20, have this week sealed £3m moves to Bologna and Hellas Verona respectively.

They are not the only ones to have been targeted. Udinese had a bid for Celtic's 22-year-old centre-back Stephen Welsh knocked back in January, while Bologna made repeated attempts to sign Calvin Ramsay from Aberdeen before his £6.5m move to Liverpool.

The expectation in Italy is that more will follow.

"My first thought about Scottish football is that the Scottish Premiership is an incredibly, incredibly underrated league," Francesco Strozzi, a scout for Bologna between 2018 and 2021, tells Sky Sports over Zoom.

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"In my opinion, it doesn't have quite enough attention in the eyes of many scouting departments around the world.

"Scottish football is fast, dynamic and physical, so for Italian clubs who are trying to find young players who have these requirements, I think it is a good league to watch and, right now, not find too much competition for players."

Strozzi knows that from experience. He was initially responsible for scouting domestic recruits aged between 15 and 18 in his role at Bologna but after the Covid outbreak brought football to a standstill in March 2020, he was assigned to remote analysis of other leagues.

"When the first Covid lockdown happened, like my other colleagues, I was obliged to watch games with scouting video analysis tools and I had the chance to watch quite a lot of Scottish games, both the youth national teams and also clubs," he says.

Scotland had already become an area of focus for Bologna's recruitment department at that point.

"When I arrived at Bologna in 2018, they were quite involved in scouting northern leagues, so Denmark, Finland, Sweden and of course Scotland," says Strozzi.

"I can say they operated there a long, long time ago."

Their knowledge of the market helped when it came to signing Hickey.

"Behind a move like Aaron Hickey's one in 2020, we as Bologna spend tonnes of hours looking for the right player and analysing them, by video analysis and games in real life," says Strozzi.

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Former Bologna scout Francesco Strozzi explains why Scottish football is underrated as Lewis Ferguson and Josh Doig follow Aaron Hickey to Serie A

"That part of the work is consistent, but I can say the most difficult part of the work is to identify which player is most suitable to playing in the Italian Serie A.

"When you watch Scottish Premiership games, you can tell there are a lot of valuable players, but when scouting based on Serie A, the priority is that they should be the right one for the team."

In Hickey's case, Bologna felt they had reasons to be confident.

Most important were his eye-catching physical and technical qualities, but Bologna were also encouraged by how Andrew Robertson, his countryman and fellow left-back, had flourished since moving from Dundee United to Hull City and subsequently Liverpool.

"Andrew Robertson was almost an unknown player but seeing his great development and his incredible impact with Liverpool from 2017 made a lot of clubs think that basing scouting activity in Scotland could be the right move," says Strozzi.

Andrew Robertson has become of the world's best left-backs at Liverpool
Image: Andrew Robertson has become of the world's best left-backs at Liverpool

"Hickey, in my opinion, is a player with similar traits to Robertson - a fast, agile player who can make runs on the left side of the pitch and help teams in both the offensive phase and the defensive phase.

"Those are his main characteristics, and they are what made Brentford go for him and take him to the Premier League."

Robertson's impact at Liverpool helped to raise interest levels in the Scottish market among Premier League clubs but, for those in Italy, it's Hickey who best demonstrates the value available to them.

"The capital gain in the case of Hickey's sale was huge," says Strozzi.

"When you think about setting up scouting operations in countries like Scotland, like Sweden, like Finland, you always think about the sporting, football side of the operation, but also the financial side.

"So that was a big, big plus to the operation."

Hickey's success has provided inspiration for his fellow players too, including Ferguson and Doig, both of whom sought his advice before sealing their own moves to Italy this week.

"He seemed to really enjoy it and he has really kicked on and improved and developed as a player and that's something I want to go and do," said Ferguson of his international team-mate.

Strozzi now expects Ferguson to prove similarly successful.

"I think he will be very, very important in the club's way of playing because Sinisa Mihajlovic is a coach who can bring out even more of Lewis Ferguson's qualities," he says.

"Ferguson makes central runs and he scores important goals from midfield, which is something you don't see so much here in Serie A.

"So, at a club like Bologna, and with the way of playing Mihajlovic wants, you can expect great things from Lewis Ferguson."

Scottish performance strategy paying off

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Ross County boss and former SFA performance director Malky Mackay explains why the country’s young players are becoming increasingly attractive to clubs in Italy and elsewhere

Hickey, Ferguson and Doig's moves to Italy are a cause for celebration among those involved in youth development in Scotland, including Ross County manager Malky Mackay, the Scottish Football Association's former performance director.

Mackay puts the growing appeal of Scotland's young players down in part to the country's performance school programme, introduced in 2012 with the aim of maximising the potential of the country's young players and ultimately benefitting the national team.

"I'm delighted for the players themselves, but I'm also delighted for the SFA performance school coaches, led by Brian McLaughlin," Mackay told Sky Sports News this week.

"The amount of work that's gone into that department over the last few years has meant youngsters are attracting attention, initially from England, but now from Europe as well, because of the amount of exposure they are getting.

"It can only be good for the Scottish national team.

"Eventually, that's where we will see the benefits and we have seen the start of that with this young group of players that has been together for last two or three years under Steve Clarke.

"There's another group that is coming behind them who are hopefully going to fill that pool out."

The long-term objective is to ensure Scotland are better equipped to qualify for major tournaments, as they did for the first time since 1998 when they made it to the finals of Euro 2020 last summer.

Billy Gilmour was named man of the match when Scotland faced England at Euro 2020
Image: Billy Gilmour was named man of the match when Scotland faced England at Euro 2020

In youngsters Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson, Scotland's squad at that tournament included graduates from two of the seven performance schools dotted around the country.

Gilmour, now of Chelsea, went to Grange Academy in Kilmarnock, while Patterson, who followed his international team-mate to the Premier League when he moved from Rangers to Everton for £16m in January, attended Hollyrood Secondary in Glasgow.

The other schools are based in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Falkirk and Motherwell and all serve to provide additional football coaching for secondary-school aged players in an educational setting.

Gilmour and Patterson were the first graduates of the programme to become senior Scotland internationals but the youth teams are full of them, a testament to the system's success. Hundreds more can be found up and down the country's footballing pyramid.

"There aren't many countries in Europe that do this programme and it is one of the things that I'm constantly asked about, in terms of my work with UEFA," added Mackay.

"Our coaches do a wonderful job alongside the clubs and that's the big thing about it. It's with the clubs and it gives young players from 12 to 16 double the amount of touches of any other kids in Scotland."

The performance schools programme is part of a wider strategy to improve the technical level of Scotland's young players and its impact can be seen in the growing demand from Italy in particular.

Scotland missed out on a place at the Qatar World Cup but reached their first major tournament since 1998 when they qualified for Euro 2020
Image: Scotland missed out on a place at the Qatar World Cup but reached their first major tournament since 1998 when they qualified for Euro 2020

"I am highly impressed by what the Scottish FA is doing," says Strozzi. "Watching a lot of games of the youth national team made me appreciate their work concerning the improvement of football coaching there.

"Their facilities are amazing and, even when it comes to the club side, Scottish football is gaining more and more importance in European football - even if it is already full of historically important clubs.

"In my opinion, they are working really, really hard to be competitive and also to let their young prospects become important assets for clubs even outside the UK.

"I think the recent moves are going to bring Scottish football onto the radar of many more clubs in Italy.

"At first, we only had a small cluster of clubs involved in scouting there. Bologna, of course, but also Empoli, Lecce and Hellas Verona. So, smaller, mid-table Serie A teams went there.

"But now I think that this trend is going to increase and maybe bigger, more important clubs in Serie A are going to put more of an eye on Scottish football to bring some players to Italy."

Aaron Hickey
Image: Aaron Hickey made 48 appearances for Bologna, scoring five goals

The hope, from Scotland's perspective, is that, much like Hickey, those players will benefit from the experience of playing in other leagues and the money received in transfer fees will help raise standards of youth development in the country further.

According to Mackay, who was responsible for overseeing the performance schools programme between 2016 and 2020, that funding element is crucial to its continued success.

"It's a long-term project," he added. "It should be seen as that and it should be funded well.

"That's the important thing for me. It's got to be believed in and it's got to be funded well over a number of years because that's when you start to see talent coming out of it and you start to see kids going to big clubs and eventually becoming Scotland players."

Aaron Hickey may soon be just one of many.

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