It was about five minutes into the game and I was running with the ball towards my own area, under pressure from a high-lying midfielder. Contemplating a longish pass back to my own 'keeper, the opposing centre-forward read my thoughts and cut off the route. Partly out of desperation, but also because it was my only party trick, I stepped over the ball with my right leg, feinted to go left, and then moved sharply to the right, back into the space that my dummy had won for me. I was out of trouble, and the crowd whistled their approval, not because it was particularly special but because the guy to whom I'd sold the dummy was Billy Bremner. But don't get too excited - it was a charity match and he was no longer in his prime.
A couple of minutes later our centre-half, encouraged by my show of competence, played the ball into me. It was at the same height of the pitch, and again, I had my back to the opposition. A millisecond before the ball reached me, I was hit by some uncanny force of nature, dead-legged with such accuracy that I collapsed at the speed of light, letting go an unmanly squeak as I kissed the grass. Looking up for my assailant, an unmistakeable face blocked out the white sky. 'Don't f****** do that again!' he snarled, loud enough for me to hear, but quiet enough to maintain his dignity in the context of the charity-match bonhomie. I did as I was told.
Bremner was the artifice of Don Revie's infamous Leeds United side of the early 1970s, aided and abetted in midfield by the equally brilliant Johnny Giles. Apart from their own supporters and the players' own mothers, Leeds were hated by everyone, but remain one of the best club sides to have ever walked the planet - strange though that may sound to the present generation. They won far fewer trophies than they should have done, but they seemed invincible nonetheless, a relentless white machine that ground the opposition into the turf with a merciless lack of warmth.
I grew up on a diet of Leeds, and it's taken me a long time to get them out of my system. For those who were around at that time, they set a scary template. I was thinking about them the other day (and of the unwise dummy) after I'd read an interview on jotdown.es with Mikel Alonso in London. Xabi's elder brother, once of Real Sociedad, Tenerife and Bolton, now plies his trade with Charlton Athletic in England's League One (they're the leaders), and when he's not training or playing for Charlton he attends lectures in philosophy at London University. Not your average subject for a footballer - with the notable exception of Albert Camus - and indeed, during the interview Alonso waxed lyrical about his enthusiasm for Spinoza, and his ideas of 'association'. Not that Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch rationalist philosopher, was hugely into football, but his ideas had rung a bell with Alonso - namely that you only develop or progress in life when you make significant associations. You find a person or persons, and they form a bridge for you onto your next landscape. Spinoza felt that the whole of our lives boiled down to a search for these 'associations', and that the rest was just decoration. Alonso told the interviewer that this was how he'd always felt about football.
Don Revie, the manager responsible for the Leeds phenomenon, was Spinoza's greatest disciple - although he probably never knew it. Whereas most managers in the game have seen the pitch in terms of thirds - defence, midfield, attack - Revie saw it in terms of quarters. What he wanted from his players was for them to form 'associations' in each quarter, to the point where the mutual understandings became automatic. They were under orders not to stray from their 'quarter' zones, since Revie deemed it unnecessary. If the links worked, the opposition would stand no chance - and thus it proved. On the right, the full-back Paul Reaney linked with Peter Lorimer; on the left, it was Terry Cooper and Eddie Gray. The two strikers, Mick Jones and Allan Clarke, were left to their zone, each of them in either of the upper quarters. It was the antithesis of total football, which the 'punk' Dutch introduced soon after in an implicit reaction to Leeds' uglier version of stadium rock. Leeds' right-back, Paul Reaney, once joked that he didn't know who Eddie Gray - the left winger - was. "We don't see each other very often," he said.
Despised though Revie was, he had probably stumbled upon one of football's great truths. A team can begin to improve if it has just one useful association. Leeds had six: one in every quarter, then the extra 'cross-overs' between Bremner and Giles plus Jones and Clarke. Several of this squad were fairly ordinary players, but their limitations were less apparent in the Leeds super-organism. And if you take a squad that is stocked full of galácticos and semi-galácticos, as in the case of Real Madrid, then any improvement that they show can probably be explained by more fluid 'associations'. Marcelo, though he's gone off the boil of late, has seemed a different player now that the predominantly left-sided Angel di Maria and Mesut Özil have settled into the Real Madrid scheme of things. Cristiano Ronaldo, for all that he may seem an over-individual player, has benefited from the development of Karim Benzema, where their association - rather than their individual talents - is proving more problematic for opposing defences this season.
It just depends on how you watch a game. On Saturday night, the excellent match between Sevilla and Osasuna (2-0) was decided by the fact that Jesus Navas, Sevilla's nippy right-winger, was being constantly fed by Coke Andujar, to an almost obsessive degree. Osasuna failed to cut the communication lines, and paid the price. Barcelona work in a different way, because their style of play requires a group of attack-minded players to constantly shift their associations around the axis of Xavi. But they all understand each other to perfection, and the Messi-Iniesta relationship is one of the most memorable in the history of modern football. The problem with playing Barça is that it is almost impossible to decide which lines of communication you want to close down. Keeping Xavi quiet can occasionally bear fruit, but Barça have an abundance of 'Plan B's. Real Madrid's problem last season, for example, was that opposing teams began to realise that a man-marking job on Xabi Alonso would close down a lot of their options. Now, Mourinho either employs a protector, or allows Alonso to fall back into a more defensive role, tempting his marker forward and creating more space for other Özil-based associations to prosper.
Part of Villarreal's problems this season stems from the fact that the Borja Valero-Santi Cazorla link has been severed, along with that of the deadly Rossi-Nilmar duo. It's difficult for teams to immediately reconstitute the dynamic that results from these kinds of chemistry. Fernando Torres hit the jackpot when he coincided with Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso at Liverpool. Now he runs around forlorn, in a void of non-association. He needs to read some Spinoza.
The negative side of this phenomenon is that certain players simply do not pass to others, creating tensions among squads. The players who form the links often look for each other to an excessive degree, isolating other team-mates. If you've played football for any length of time in various teams, you'll know about this. When my son Harry was poached by Antiguoko here in San Sebastián, they asked him to play in a pre-season friendly match as a sort of trial, although they were committed to signing him. After the game, we sat in the car and I asked him if he wanted to sign. He was worried that his mates from his previous team would shun him, for going over to the Dark Side. Antiguoko are not liked, because they are good, and because they poach. After a pause, he nodded. "Dad - I got more passes from that right-back in 80 minutes than I've had from Gorka [his previous non-supplier] in three years." It decided him - the promise of new associations, of developing his game - of not having to charge around doing it all on his own. And of course, you step up a level and you find that it's not as rosy as you were expecting, that the established guys have already formed their associations, and that you have to work hard to get a pass from them in training - but when it comes, you know you're okay, that you're accepted.
Meanwhile, the league rumbles on. Levante's eyebrow-raising 5-3 defeat at home to Rayo Vallecano means that the fourth Champions League spot is occupied by Espanyol, on 33 points - 28 points behind Real Madrid in pole position, but only two points ahead of Osasuna, in tenth place. Rayo themselves have 31, and can rightly begin to aspire for a Champions League spot. It's turning into a funny old season, which can only get more entertaining after this week, when Real Madrid follow Barcelona into renewed continental combat at CSKA Moscow on Tuesday night. Barça followed up their win at Bayer Leverkusen last week with a 5-1, Messi-inspired stuffing of Valencia on Sunday night, just to equal Madrid's 4-0 pummelling of ten-man Racing the night before. However, if there is to be renewed competition between the big two this season, it seems more likely to occur in a European context.
So, to conclude, Association Football - now we know what it really means. Watch your team this coming weekend in a more Spinoza-informed light. And if you ever come up against an ex-pro, don't get too clever.