Former Fremantle chairman Rick Hart has revealed intimate details about the one-time "basket case" club whose administrators feared would be closed in the face of an $8.1 million debt.
Mr Hart, who presided over the Dockers from 2002 to 2009, said morale had been almost sapped at the time he took over. There appeared to be few avenues to turn its prospects around with the ire of AFL heavyweights hovering like "the grim reaper".
"I took over in 2002 when we were broke and described by Andrew Demetriou as a basket case, which was probably fair," Mr Hart said. "There were horrible thoughts going through the place about whether AFL clubs could get delisted, and there was really no real road forward.
"When you're broke and you don't know where your next dollar is coming from and you've got nothing to offer sponsors and you've only won two games the year before, it's a difficult thing."
But the Perth whitegoods businessman said the gradual financial turnaround, to the point where the club declared itself "debt-free" in February 2005, rated among his most satisfying achievements.
The club ultimately paid $1.7 million to the AFL to retire its debt, which had skyrocketed to $8.1 million in 2002.
Mr Hart said a meeting at AFL House at Melbourne's Docklands early in 2002 that centred on a recruiting scandal over former Port Adelaide star Fabian Francis had given him grave fears for the club's future. But another meeting at Fremantle's Esplanade Hotel, which included current AFL deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan, was the catalyst to rebuild the club's viability.
"I had this great belief in the Fremantle spirit and the Fremantle people and that they wanted a club to be successful and something to be proud of," he said. "So I thought there was a great opportunity to build it slowly and bring it back into gear."
Mr Hart yesterday acknowledged the contribution of former chief executive Cameron Schwab and past coaches Chris Connolly and Mark Harvey for the key roles they played in the club's on-field and off-field turnaround.
He said playing Sydney in this weekend's preliminary final gave Fremantle the chance for perfect revenge after the Swans stopped the Dockers with a 35-point loss in the 2006 preliminary final.
But Mr Hart was also cautious about banking a win over Sydney before it happened.
"The great thing about being a Fremantle supporter is you've got this great vision of what might be and on the other hand you've got this little devil saying, 'Don't get too excited, boy'," he said.