ON a scorching Saturday morning in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD in early February, the senior group of Yallourn Yallourn North footballers, could be seen running amuck, stampeding across the fine turf belonging to the AFL’s premiership side of 2023.

The North Gippsland side was gifted the opportunity to train at Collingwood’s training facilities at the AIA Centre due to the strong relationship forged with former Latrobe Valley footballer, Mannon Johnston.

Johnston has served many roles at the elite football club dating back to 2019, including player wellbeing in the VFL operations department and lately full-time player engagement manager and athlete development at the Pies.

In addition to off-field roles, Johnston provides the gameday running for the senior side delivering messages distributed from premiership coach Craig McRae along the bench to the footballers amid battle.

Combined with all this experience in such a successful and professional group, Johnston was still impressed by the push-through attitude the Jets’ playing group showed despite the day’s conditions as they mirrored the typical off-season team training of a professional sports team.

“(It) shows the buy-in and commitment, getting up for a Saturday morning where it’s going to be a difficult training,” Johnston said.

“It’s a change in stimulus.”

“To get 40 plus to a training like that is amazing.”

Being within the walls of a historic AFL structure cemented over 130 years ago, Johnston hoped there would be that added level of competence and consideration when going about their day.

His assumptions proved correct.

The group began by competing individually in a push-up challenge titled ‘Bring Sally Up’, named after the song of the same name.

Following the tune and appropriately lifting and dropping to the lyrics, “Bring Sally up … bring Sally down,” Johnston saw such encouragement from the group with players dropping and still getting around to support the ones gutting through the task at hand.

“That was the shining light. Everyone encouraging each other and ready for whatever’s next,” Johnston said.

Those gruelling standards set the tone for the day and what followed provided even more grit and toughness in the form of intense competitive and skill-based drills.

Then arrived the true test, the tan.

A trek along the Yarra with Collingwood’s Strength and Conditioning coach, Victor Nguyen, included tough incline sprints and painful hillside efforts that added up to over five kilometres of hard running.

That again showcased the resilience and tightness of the group that Johnston praised.

“It’s not about yourself. You push through but everyone tries to bring (along the next),” Johnston said.

Despite assisting in the delivery of in-the-moment strategic decision-making to seasoned AFL players, he admitted the group were even teaching him when in an open conversation surrounding football philosophies and tactics.

“The responses I got were spot-on, (they) almost educated me,” Johnston said.

The Collingwood official was a member of Morwell FNC back-to-back senior premierships in 2013 and 2014 alongside current YYN players Dean MacDonald, Campbell MacInnes, and first-year senior coach, Tom Hutton.

“Mannon is an unbelievable resource for us to have,” Hutton said.

“The various roles he has played at Collingwood during a period of overhaul, improvement, and revitalisation gives him an incredible insight on what works in making positive change, and that is something we should always be striving to do as a club and as people.”

Johnston also donned the club’s colours (then simply Bombers’ red and black) for a short stint during the COVID-stricken 2021 North Gippsland FNL season, YYN’s debut season in the league.

In addition to the opportunities that have blossomed due to football, Johnston has a history of teaching and wellbeing support.

With experience in relief teaching and work with the youth mental health foundation, Headspace, Johnston has a passion for education in all types of organisations and groups.

That also applies to his ideologies on football, accompanied by the collectiveness of integrity he said YYN displayed.

“Players need to take leadership on themselves. They understood the game plan, it was impressive,” Johnston said.

Johnston has already made an appearance at YYN for a visiting preseason outing, but there is no doubt there will be more to come.

“We are looking forward to running many more sessions like this in the future,” Hutton said.

These opportunities for a regional club connecting with AFL create consistent improvement that spans years, but Hutton sees this and other implementations up his sleeve to affect not only individuals and the team but also the club itself.

Elite: Yallourn Yallourn North Football Club had the opportunity to train like an AFL premiership-winning team last month. Photograph supplied

Stunned: The Jets impressed coaches with a can-do attitude despite the scorching heat.

The best: The Jets learnt from the best Football team of the 2023 season.