‘You’ll see one big happy family’ – TRUK United FC’s Abi Cornell on history-making match at Dulwich Hamlet

Published by Jon Holmes on

On Trans Day of Visibility on Thursday, a landmark football friendly will be held at Dulwich Hamlet FC’s Champion Hill ground (kick-off 7.30pm). Defender Abi Cornell tells Sports Media LGBT+ why it’s a ‘dream’ to play in the game and how LGBTQ+ people and allies can show support…

By Jon Holmes

Abi Cornell (right, with TRUK United FC player-manager Lucy Clark)

With international matches filling the midweek schedule, and Arsenal’s Women’s Champions League tie at Wolfsburg an early evening kick-off, you might feel that you’re struggling to find your football fix when Thursday night rolls around.

However, look no further than Champion Hill, the homely stadium of Dulwich Hamlet FC, just a short walk from East Dulwich station or a stroll from Denmark Hill. The DHFC Women’s team will be in friendly action and their opponents are TRUK United FC – the trans-inclusive club formed only last year who played their first match at Leatherhead in September.

For their second outing, taking place on Trans Day of Visibility, the aim is to celebrate the participation of trans and non-binary people in football and also to raise money for Trans Radio UK and TRUK Listens, the station’s affiliated community interest company (CIC) which offers help and support to trans and non-binary people.

With a team made up of predominantly players who are trans but also featuring other LGBTQ+ people and allies, TRUK United FC put up a valiant display in their debut fixture six months ago but were ultimately beaten 6-3 on the day by their charity competition opponents, Fighting For Cancer.

TRUK United – whose player-boss is club founder Lucy Clark – are now hoping to build on that performance and also, at one stage of the game against Dulwich, to field an XI entirely of trans women – something that would be a first in British football, and possibly worldwide.

In front of a crowd of LGBTQ+ people and allies, the match promises to be a great occasion – tickets are on sale now, priced just £4 for adults and £2 for concessions.

To talk us through the game, we caught up with TRUK United player Abi Cornell to learn about her journey in football, and what spectators interested in popping down to The Hill on Thursday night can expect…

JH: Hi Abi, thanks for joining me for a chat! How did you find out about TRUK United FC?

AC: Thanks for the invite! I first got involved when Lucy announced the launch of the club via Facebook in January 2021 and said they were looking for players. The timing was spot on because I was just starting to do Couch To 5K – I was at about week three or four. I saw the announcement come up on my timeline and I signed up to be part of it there and then.

I’d been looking for a football team. Once I’d transitioned, I feared that finding one might have been a thing of the past. So I jumped at the chance to join TRUK and I’m so grateful to Lucy for creating the team.

Tell me about your football memories growing up.

I’ve always been sporty and been around grassroots football. My stepdad used to play for a local team and I’d be there week in week out, playing with the other kids. I’d go to football camps, was active in swimming, and I was also really into paintball and got to a reasonably high level in that. Later, my stepdad was playing regularly with the local veterans team so I joined in there for a while too.

I moved away from that area and stopped playing, though I was still interested in getting back into grassroots with a team. But that’s as far as it went. In 2019, I found out I was trans and I came out towards the end of that year. I thought football was over for me. However, through the pandemic, I was trying to keep fit – and that led up to the TRUK announcement.

Where do your football passions lie?

I support Birmingham City – my father’s side of the family were all Bluenoses so I’ve stuck with them – and as I live in the Cambridge area, I would go to watch Cambridge United now and again. I’ve been to see Arsenal and Tottenham play, and matches at Wembley. To be honest, I probably appreciate the game as a neutral more than anything!

Were there times when you were younger when you felt uncomfortable in football spaces because of being LGBTQ+?

Before 2019 when I realised I was trans, I had no real inkling although I’d always felt uneasy at times and in certain settings. I’m also autistic and I managed to build up a mask because of that. I could cope in environments like boys and men’s football but I never felt fully part of it.

You mentioned your drive to be fitter and get back into football. Was this a way to help you be more comfortable in yourself?

It was more because I’m on HRT. It was a way to maintain a level of muscle and capability. My work requires lifting things so I wanted to minimise the drawback of HRT on that by focusing on fitness.

When TRUK was announced, I doubled my Couch To 5K efforts and improved my fitness by going to the gym too, because I was aiming to play in the team’s first match.

I then started training with a team in August. I had to do a lot of research to find them because I didn’t know anyone in women’s football in the local area. I didn’t know what my level of ability was either, so I decided that I’d ask to join a club that was advertised as being LGBTQ+ friendly, and that was Haverhill Rovers Ladies.

It was nerve-wracking to approach them. But the first time I made contact, I thought, ‘let’s be honest and up front’. I introduced myself, and said I was trans, and they suggested I come down. Everyone was lovely – so open and supportive – and I was invited to join their community squad and train with them.

I was on course to make the TRUK game but the day before the match, I sliced my leg open and sadly I couldn’t play on the day. However, I was able to get down there and support the team. And as soon as I arrived, I gave Lucy a massive hug because I’d found a team to be proud of. All the people there were so welcoming – LGBTQ+ people and allies – and it was a wonderful feeling to be treated equally.

Abi wasn’t fit to play in TRUK United FC’s first match but she felt truly included as part of the squad

What have your experiences been like in local football?

I’ve played with a few teams now in Cambridgeshire and the surrounding area, such as Haverhill, Fulbourn Bluebirds, Histon Ladies, Thetford Town Ladies, and Buntingford Town Ladies. I’ve been out there training as much as four times a week! I’m a left-sided defender – my preferred position would be left-back. I’m actually right-footed but I ended up on the left as no one in the vets team I used to play in liked to play there!

There was one negative incident I had which happened while I was running the line, and a spectator was heckling me. But the situation was reported the same day – the team really had my back.

At all the clubs I’ve made contact with, I’ve been open about being trans and they’ve either said, ‘it’s not a problem’ or they haven’t focused on it. I owe a big thank you to all of them for accepting me. They are wonderful women who should be proud of themselves and their clubs.

How did you find the process of applying under the FA’s trans inclusion policy?

If you’re trans, you’re able to train or play friendlies but to play competitive matches, you need to have accreditation from the FA Equalities team and I made sure I had that in place before joining Haverhill. It took me four weeks to get it.

You do have to reveal your medical history and that can be a stumbling block for many trans people. But as long as you’ve been on HRT for a set amount of time and your levels meet the target, you’re free to play. Then every season, you have to redo the tests and submit them.

I haven’t yet had voice feminisation training and that means I do still feel a bit uncomfortable with my voice. I may therefore be a bit quiet in asking for the ball but I’m challenging myself because since I started my transition, I’ve had the mentality that if I can do it during a pandemic, nothing can stop me.

Were you able to recover quickly from your injury?

Yes, fortunately it didn’t interfere with my training as much as it could have. And one additional thing that’s happened from that is I’ve got into coaching. While I was injured, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to come and help out on that side too and now I’ve started doing my badges.

One of the objectives for Thursday night at Dulwich Hamlet FC is to get LGBTQ+ people and allies to come along, watch the game, and show their support. How would you encourage them to do that?

It’s history-making to be able to have a full team of trans women on the field during this game. And we’ll be playing against a strong women’s team that has been very supportive. The atmosphere is going to be wonderful – you’re going to see one big happy family, and it will be the experience of a lifetime. particularly for some young trans people who are coming down to be a part of the event.

Learn more about TRUK United FC by listening to this episode of the FvT Podcast with Abi and Lucy

The match is being played on Trans Day of Visibility. To be visible is something that can be very challenging, particularly on social media nowadays. How do you find that?

Before my transition, I was as shy as you can be but since then, I’ve been growing in confidence, I’ve dyed my hair, and I’m more willing now to put myself out there. I want to help make trans people more visible in the game by getting on the pitch and showing how we’re all equal.

We’ve been talking in this FvT Week of Action about role models. Whose story has helped to inspire you?

Seeing Quinn win a gold medal at the Olympics in August was definitely a spark for me. In the early days of TRUK, I read up on Sammy Walker and when the team was forming, I’ve been able to meet Natalie Washington and Paula Griffin too. Paula’s story in particular is very powerful – the amount of football she plays, I thought that if she can do it, so can I!

As for me, I’ve overcome a lot in my life – I was bullied since I was little, I’m trans, and I have a speech impediment. But you have to believe in yourself. I could never have dreamed of getting a chance to play in a game like we’ll have on Thursday night – but now here we are.

Thanks so much to Abi and everyone at TRUK United FC, and good luck for the game at Dulwich Hamlet FC – gates at Champion Hill (SE33 8BD) open at 6pm, and kick-off is at 7.30pm. You can buy tickets in advance at SeeTickets.

The Football v Transphobia campaign’s annual Week of Action runs until Thursday, March 31 – get the lowdown here

Sports Media LGBT+ is a network, advocacy, and consultancy group that is helping to build a community of LGBTQ+ people and allies in sport. We’re also a digital publisher. Learn more about us here.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor