When Kerala retained the Santosh Trophy at home in 1993, V.P. Shaji was part of that team. He was the baby of the side in that tournament held at Kochi.

Fourteen years later, Shaji is with the Kerala in a different capacity – as the coach. It is his maiden Santosh Trophy in such a role.

He believes he could achieve now as a coach what he could as a player then: to lift the trophy. He passed the first test towards achieving that goal a couple of days ago at Kozhikode. He guided Kerala to the top of Group A in the South Zone qualifiers at the Corporation Stadium.

It was quite a solid performance by a young, largely inexperienced Kerala side. It didn’t lose a game and was the only team that didn’t concede a goal.

Shaji, however, admitted the team was quite nervous going into the final encounter against Karnataka. “Even before the tournament kicked off, I knew Karnataka would be our main rival and when Andhra was held to a draw, unexpectedly, by Puducherry, the pressure on us mounted,” he told Sportstar on Thursday. “If Andhra had won, we could have qualified even if we had lost. Now, we needed at least a draw.”

Kerala did get the draw, as the match failed to produce a goal. But, the team never looked like it was playing for a draw; it was trying for a win. And it was in such attacking vein that Kerala played in all its three matches here.

“That was what I asked the boys to do,” said Shaji. “I am glad that we could play an attacking kind of football that entertained the football-loving crowds of Kozhikode. I hope we also get to play the final round here. Nowhere else in India would you find people coming to watch Santosh Trophy qualifying matches at 1.45 in the afternoon.”

Kerala would of course have to face much stronger rivals in the final phase. “But I have faith in my boys,” the coach said. “They have the potential to overcome any side. I am extremely happy with the way they have evolved as a team, and it was nice to see youngsters like Sahal Samad and Jishnu Balakrishnan have performed on the big stage. Players like them make me optimistic about Kerala football.”