William Mathew Glen grew up in Somerset Road, Ringsend and was so good at football that he was playing for Shamrock Rovers when he was only 16, and before he was 20 he made a name for himself with Rovers when they won the Leinster Senior League and reached the final of the first-ever FAI Cup in 1922.
The archive reports state, “Rovers’ robust style was epitomised by ‘Sacky’ Glen.”
A year later, Rovers had progressed to the League of Ireland and won that championship with an attack magnificently backed up by Glen in defence.
Rovers continued to raise their game in the following seasons to become arguably the best team in Irish football. At the same time, Glen was honing his defensive skills and working to become a formidable obstacle to his opponents. He had pace, timing in the tackle, and peerless heading ability.
He was the son of a blacksmith and worked as a manual labourer throughout his football career and was a very strong man, but that was not what made him the fine player he was. What made him special was his quick brain, his gift of defensive anticipation. He gave the impression that he could intercept the ball from attackers at will. He was a natural defender.
In his many FAI Cup finals, Glen was also ‘mentioned in dispatches’ for his help in attack as well as for his work in the backline. The FAI Cup history book mentions him in its report of the 1931 Cup Final between Rovers and Dundalk. Things did not go smoothly for Rovers. Dundalk were 1-0 up and time was running out in the second half “when ‘Sacky’ Glen went up to help his forwards and Rovers equalised.” Then Rovers scored again and won their fourth Cup.
In the 1936 FAI Cup, he once more went on the attack. He scored a penalty in the semi. In the final, the game was still 0-0 when “Sacky Glen sent the ball across to Kinsella who kicked it high in front of goal.” A defender cleared it straight to Paddy Moore, who scored to put Rovers ahead. Less than 10 minutes later, they went 2-0 up when Charlie Reid headed a goal from Glen’s free kick. Another Cup for Rovers!
Despite these great performances and his enduring consistency in club football, Glen was only selected sporadically for Ireland. His debut for the Irish team was in 1927 against Italy at Lansdowne Road. In 1929, he made a major contribution to a famous Republic of Ireland win. He held the team’s defence inviolate against Belgium, while his fellow Ringsend men, John Joe Flood and David ‘Babby’ Byrne, combined to score and Ireland won 4-0 that day.
It was the first time the Republic had kept an opposing team scoreless. In 1935 he was made captain of the national team and led them in four consecutive matches: away to Holland, at home to Switzerland, and away against Luxembourg and Hungary in May 1936.
At that time, the Hungarians were one of the world’s best sides and their visitors usually left Budapest as heavy losers, broken in spirit and battered on the scoreboard. But not this time, the Irish team broke the pattern. They didn’t win, but they did not lose! Thanks to Glen’s captaincy and two Jimmy Dunne goals, they earned a proud draw with the ‘Magnificent Magyars’.
You’d think that result would have been enough to keep Glen captain of the team. But it wasn’t. 1936 was the last time he played for Ireland.
And the 1936 FAI Cup Final was the last he played for Shamrock Rovers. He is on record as stating that his sudden loss of favour was on account of a difference of opinion with owner Joe Cunningham that led to his Rovers exit. “When the Cunninghams took over Rovers in 1936, I got out. And after I left Rovers I never got another international cap, so maybe I sacrificed my international career for my principles.”
This is the mystery at the heart of the William Glen story. What principles? What was the row about? No one seems to know.
But, his departure from Shamrock Rovers and his exile from the Ireland team was not the end of Glen.
At the 1939 FAI Cup Final between Sligo Rovers and Shelbourne, in front of a crowd of 28,000, a man walked out on the pitch wearing the ‘fireman red’ colours of Shelbourne! His name was William Glen.
The start of the final was remarkable. After less than two minutes, a Sligo player handled the ball about ten yards outside the penalty area. Glen took the free kick to “crash the ball” past the Sligo goalkeeper. Shels were 1-0 up.
Sligo woke up and put the Shelbourne defence under pressure with several attacks down their left side but the Shelbourne backs were sturdy customers and in the second half Shels were still one up, and “Glen was at this stage the idol of the Shelbourne supporters. The presumed star of the show, Dixie Dean, was completely blotted out of the picture and, apart from minor chances, there was no beating the Shels defence, in which Glen shone.”
Towards the very end of the 90 minutes, Sligo had a free kick from 40 yards out but “couldn’t do what Glen had.” The final whistle went.
In summation, The Times said: “Full marks must be given to the Shelbourne backs for weathering the storm, or rather the full gale” of Sligo’s nearly continuous offensive pressure. “Much of the credit was due to ‘Sacky’ Glen who was a tower of strength at right back in perhaps his greatest individual game.”
It was the first time Shelbourne had won the FAI Cup. It was the eighth time Glen had won it. And this was the end, a winning end to a winning career. He retired at the top. At the age of 36, he finished his football life as a champion.
By Gavan Bergin