The football world has always felt that Fremantle are the poor relation of the game in WA.

That has probably been brought on by the fact that West Coast have been so successful in their 25 years and the Dockers’ history pales in comparison.

But the reality is you can’t just compare yourselves to West Coast, you have to compare yourselves with the rest of the competition.

If it is only based on West Coast, then they have been failures. If it is based on the rest of the competition, then they have been disappointing at best.

From 1995 to the end of 2002, Fremantle went through four coaches and the highest position they finished in that whole time — their first eight years — was 12th.

That’s damning, quite frankly, in an AFL competition that gives you the opportunity early in your existence to bring players back to WA and really put a good list together. Some, like Ben Allan, were a success, but too many were failures.

The classic case of what they could have had is Andrew McLeod. They had every chance to get him and it was deemed he wasn’t a good enough player. He went on to be a dual premiership player and dual Norm Smith Medal winner in his 340 games.

I’m a great believer in showing what your club stands for. As late as last year when I was coaching Collingwood, I still didn’t know exactly where Fremantle stood.

In all my time of thinking about them, the Dockers have never declared what they totally stand for. And it started right at their beginning.

Every club has a chance to put down strong foundations on which they are built. This becomes their culture. Winning or losing, good or bad, choices can be made.

They have had some wonderful people at their football club and this is not an indictment on all the people at Fremantle because there are people who have put their heart and soul into that club.

But on their inception in 1995, Fremantle missed the boat on making a statement on their culture.

The facts are simple. This will be their 18th season and they have only made the finals three times, finishing seventh (2003), fourth (2006) and sixth (2010).

But what they have to do now in their first season under Ross Lyon is absolutely create their own culture. If they’re going to stand for anything, it has to be for excellence.

To me, they always had this massive build-up that they wanted to beat West Coast and they lost sight of the competition. It was almost like “if we beat West Coast, we’ve had a successful year”.

From the start of 2006 to the end of 2010, Fremantle lost only one of 10 western derbies. They won both in 2006, but the Eagles won the premiership that year. That says it all.

When I was in WA, Fremantle had such jealousies that it almost seemed like they wanted to be West Coast in disguise. Their energies were misdirected.

They can say what they like about that, but that was the general feel that we had at West Coast.

I’ve now been away for 12 years, but the derby was always one of those games I looked forward to seeing. While they’ve had a fair record recently, it’s means little if it’s not followed up with winning seasons.

At the end of the day, it’s not a matter of winning one game. It’s a matter of winning enough games to make the finals and then proceeding through that finals series. Their mindset has to be macro not micro.

With Ross coming in, this is their opportunity to now state categorically what they stand for, but it can’t be just the coach.

The players have got to embrace it and president Steve Harris and his board must also stand behind this case of excellence. Then if you accept anything less, you’re just looking for excuses.

They have an experienced coach whose teams have played off in three grand finals in the last three years. His teams and football divisions haven’t come home with a premiership, but they have been highly impressive. They put the Saints back on the map.

Here’s a few issues for Fremantle this season.

They must be patient with Anthony Morabito because when you’ve been out for 12 months, it’s as much mental as it is physical and he will find he has his ups and downs.

Aaron Sandilands has been the best ruckman in the competition through time and if he’s right he will be again. Michael Barlow, with a year under his belt since breaking his leg, should be a better player.

I don’t really think their loss of Rhys Palmer to Greater Western Sydney will be a big one because Patersons Stadium didn’t really suit his style.

More importantly, I think the dependence on Matthew Pavlich has to be diminished.

Pavlich was disappointing last year, although he won their best and fairest.

Offensively, he was very good. But defensively, I just thought that clubs worked him out midfield and if he went in there they could really work off him.

There is also a case to be said that when he played in the forward line he was very reliant on other players to do his hard work when the ball was in opposition hands.

I don’t want to be overly harsh because he’s a six-times best-and-fairest winner and he’s been very loyal to that football club when he could have gone back to Adelaide.

But I’ll say this, you can’t be a great defensive side — which Ross Lyon wants — if you don’t have your captain singing the tune.

This will be a big test for Pavlich to be able to play the role that Lyon wants him to play and still hold up defensively.

Fremantle’s test early in the season will be how well they have come to grips with a new game plan. The way Ross likes his team to play is a lot harder to sustain at Patersons Stadium, even though St Kilda had success there under his watch. He has to sell it to the player group and it won’t be that easy.

I see it taking some time because the game structure he wants won’t happen automatically.

When you actually become a home coach at Patersons, you really come to know the difference between that ground and other grounds.

That means it will be an education for Lyon too. He’s in charge of one of only two teams in WA and massive scrutiny will be on him every week because people loved Mark Harvey.

The gaze on him won’t be intermittent like it is in Victoria where the heat is distributed between 10 teams.

He will have to get used to a dry track and a long ground every week.

He knows the length of the ground, now it will be about finding the right game structure he believes is appropriate for that ground.

The Dockers have a tough draw to start the season, with the reigning premiers Geelong tonight, then Sydney at the SCG next weekend, plus finals contenders St Kilda, Carlton, Hawthorn, West Coast and Adelaide in the first 10 rounds.

But the draw opens up for them in the second half of the year when they play only three sides, Essendon, West Coast and Collingwood, that made the finals in 2011 in their last 12 games.

It will be a grinding season for Fremantle, but it would surprise me if they didn’t make the finals and I think they could even give the top five a shake.

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