Arsenal’s secret weapon: an Aussie with a difference

While Arsenal will scour the globe this summer for a signing to make the difference in the upcoming Premier League campaign, the biggest acquisition – or at least their most important one – might be their new director of performance.

Darren Burgess

Darren Burgess at a Port Adelaide training session Source: Getty Images

And as one of the best in the world at what he does, Darren Burgess could be excused for having an appropriately-sized ego.

Instead, being regarded as an international expert has not gone to his head, no matter how many big names he’s worked with during a glittering career, with two decades of experience shaping one of the most innovative sports science brains we have.

No wonder AFL club Port Adelaide wouldn’t let him go without a fight. They’d already seen him depart once, when Football Federation Australia jumped in to make him the head of the fitness with the Socceroos in 2007 for three years.

In the end, Arsenal was forced to pay a sort of “transfer fee” to the Power, whilst agreeing to a raft of conditions – including allowing Burgess to return to the Power in July to plan the rest of their season, and come back again if they make the finals (more than likely).

Port Adelaide have even angled to form a kind of “international partnership” with Arsenal, with Power chief executive Keith Thomas planning to meet with Arsenal boss Ivan Gazidis during the Gunners’ pre-season tour of Australia.

But the world of the Premier League is nothing new to Burgess, having served over two-and-a-half years as the head of Fitness and Conditioning at Liverpool after leaving the Socceroos' setup post-2010 FIFA World Cup.

When I was travelling through Liverpool in 2011, Darren managed to find out about my visit and sent me a message, offering to show me around the club’s famed Melwood training ground.

The stipulation was simple: be there at 6:30am for a breakfast walk-and-talk - before everyone else arrives, but when Burgess is already in full swing. Short of pulling on the boots at Anfield, this was a Liverpool fan's dream.

I got to see decades of history all around; the walls were dotted with reminders of what it takes to get to the top and a visit to the field where countless legends honed their craft. But the real prize was getting a peek inside the club’s newly-designed high-performance room.

It was here that Burgess unveiled what could best best described as scientific laboratory. His Zero-G treadmills dominated the room and looked like something out of a NASA experiment.

They were revolutionary at the time (and still are rare given their expense) but he insisted the club get their hands on the equipment.

The machines aided in the process of rehabilitation and measuring performance – and was a space to test physical limits. Burgess revealed that what Steven Gerrard could perform was utterly phenomenal.

Unfortunately, this was the time of Kenny Dalglish’s last spell, when the demands of the modern game – as happens to everyone eventually – had passed the great master by. Liverpool never got the chance to reap the full benefits of Burgess’s work.

But the players were enamoured by his techniques. Many were surprised how advanced Australia’s knowledge was in this field and much of a quantum leap forward it was from football.

The desire to be closer to family took Burgess back to Adelaide in time for the 2013 AFL season, and an opportunity to step back in with the Power beckoned. He was credited as the “secret weapon” behind the club’s highly improbably 2014 premiership charge, when they came from nowhere to nearly make a grand final.

Burgess retained a strong reputation in England and it was only a matter of time before one of the big clubs came calling. In the end, it was Arsenal who prised him away, giving him even greater responsibility than Liverpool did. As performance director, he will have a huge say in everything the club does – just shy of Arsene Wenger’s remit.

To that end, he’s now arguably the most influential Australian in club football on a global scale. May he pave the path for the rest of the football world to discover our best and brightest.

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4 min read
Published 20 June 2017 at 7:22pm
By Sebastian Hassett