FREMANTLE has emerged as a surprise contender for Tim Kelly, just months after being excluded from negotiations for the in-demand Geelong midfielder.
AFL.com.au understands the Kelly camp will closely monitor the Dockers' on-field performances this year, as well as new football boss Peter Bell's influence at the club's Cockburn headquarters.
It is a significant shift from five months ago, when Kelly's hope to return to Western Australia came with the caveat that he become an Eagle – and an Eagle only.
Fremantle is also better placed than West Coast to scrape together the $650,000-per-season it might take to lure the 24-year-old, although money is just one factor.
Kelly and his partner, Caitlin, have found life difficult in Geelong raising their three children, Tykeem and twins Tariq and Trey, who are all younger than four, with family support limited to infrequent trips from the west.
However, Kelly and his manager, Anthony Van Der Wielen, repeatedly make it clear he is enjoying playing for the Cats and that the issue is with location rather than the football club.
"It's no secret to those who are close to Tim and Caitlin that living so far away from home with a young family and without the daily support of close friends and family hasn't been easy," Van Der Wielen told AFL.com.au in October.
"The club have been exceptional in their efforts to make Tim and his family as comfortable as possible.
"Tim's said himself that if he could pick the Geelong Football Club up and take them to Perth, he'd never leave."
West Coast's best offer to Geelong for Kelly was believed to be worth the points equivalent of pick two on the AFL Draft Value Index, but it still wasn't enough to prise him loose.
Eagles list manager Brady Rawlings then put on the record, only minutes after the deadline passed, that there was "no doubt" they would try again 12 months later.
Bell, who took over as general manager of football in September, looms as the difference-maker if the Dockers are to beat West Coast for Kelly's signature should he again seek to leave the Cattery.
Geelong remains hopeful it can change Kelly's mind about him staying long-term at the Cats, but any such backflip – considered the least-likely outcome – would not happen until late in the season.
The Fremantle snub was one of the major sub-plots in the saga, which started long before the NAB AFL Trade Period and lasted until the deadline came and went without a deal.
The narrative was that Van Der Wielen's purported negative history with the Dockers was the stumbling block in any Kelly-to-Freo pact.
It seems now that may have been overblown, with Fremantle privately making it clear that club officials, particularly Bell, retain a strong relationship with the Perth-based player manager.
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Van Der Wielen, a director at South Fremantle Football Club, has managed more than 10 Dockers footballers across the years, including Paul Hasleby, Jeff Farmer and Antoni Grover.
Where the Eagles hold an advantage over Fremantle with Kelly is the interest they showed in him before he became a household name last year, when he was runner-up in Geelong's best and fairest.
They went close to rookie-listing Kelly in 2016, then kept in regular contact the following year after electing not to draft him – and they were aware Caitlin was pregnant with twins.
The Dockers, on the other hand, were not as vigorous in establishing a rapport at that stage.
That is understood to be among the key reasons West Coast is still Kelly's top choice.
Fremantle's ability to improve its on-field fortunes and present as a club with a bright future, with Bell driving a renewed culture, will determine whether that changes.