The Gunners' secret weapon
Australia has had its fair share of star players to make an impact in the English Premier League. But one of our leading sports science innovators may prove to be the most influential Aussie yet in world soccer.
It was 20 years ago that Australian fitness guru Darren Burgess — then a sprightly sports science graduate — snail-mailed his resume to 91 European football clubs in the hope of scoring his dream job.
“They were letters because I didn’t have a fax machine, and I only got three back saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’,” Burgess said.
“The other 88 ignored me, which is fair enough because back then it was a long way to send a letter back. But that was how keen I was to work in professional soccer.”
One of the 88 clubs that snubbed Burgess was his current employer, top-flight English Premier League side Arsenal. And when they finally did get in touch, they definitely didn’t use snail mail.
It was midway through the 2017 AFL season while working as Port Adelaide’s head of high performance that Burgess received a phone call from the UK. He was soon to learn that former Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger had handpicked him to be the club’s director of high performance, a new role created specifically for him.
“The phone call was completely out of the blue. I answered and it was just, ‘I’m calling from Arsenal to see if you would like to come and meet Mr Wenger and discuss some opportunities’, and to be honest I didn’t think it was completely serious at first,” Burgess said.
Within a couple of weeks, he announced he was leaving the AFL and Port Adelaide to return to the Premier League with the Gunners, having previously worked with rival club Liverpool.
Even in the high profile world of English football, it’s pretty rare for a backroom staff appointment to make news. But Burgess’s signing prompted scores of headlines, some proclaiming he was “a genius” and “the best in the world”.
“I have to admit that those headlines made me wince,” he said. “The most important thing for me is gaining the respect of the people you work with, so I try not to pay too much attention to anything that can distract you from that.”
If the past is anything to go on, Burgess shouldn’t have much trouble winning the esteem of Arsenal’s stars. Former AFL player Kane Cornes, who was at Port Adelaide while Burgess was the club’s high performance manager, said the trainer’s greatest strength was his ability to communicate a complex fitness program.
“He also makes the players believe they are fitter than they actually are,” Cornes told the Football.London website. “It’s a vital mindset that can be the difference between winning and losing.”
And former Liverpool doctor Peter Brukner, who worked with Burgess for both Liverpool and the Australian national team, says he is “the best in the business”.
“I can certainly say he’s the best fitness person I’ve ever worked with, and obviously I’ve been in the game for a very long time,” Brukner told The Evening Standard.
As one of Australia’s leading sports science innovators, Burgess has an impressive resume to boot. His career kicked off with an eight-year lecturing gig in exercise science at ACU while working as a fitness coach at the Sydney Swans and soccer club Parramatta Power.
As well as his first Premier League role with Liverpool and two stints with Port Adelaide, he was head of sports science at Australian Football Federation in the lead-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which still stands as his career highlight.
“To help get the Socceroos to the World Cup, I’m not sure that will ever be overtaken as the dream job,” Burgess said.
“I love Australia and I love Australian football and I’ve been a fan of the Socceroos for as long as I can remember, so that role was amazing and I’d certainly love to do it again down the track should the opportunity arise.
“But the Arsenal role - this is a dream job in another way. It’s the culmination of 20-odd years of hard work and I’m really excited about what the next few years hold for the Arsenal football club. It’s easily the best professional club I’ve seen in all my travels, so to have the privilege of working with them is a really amazing gift.”
Darren Burgess completed a PhD in sports science (talent development and player monitoring) at ACU. He also lectured at the University in exercise science. Find out more about studying exercise science at ACU.
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