The drive from south London to Sheppey United FC takes well over an hour, providing plenty of time for a group of travelling team-mates to talk.
Non-league players across the country tend to rack up the miles over the course of a season, with midweek training sessions, often a midweek fixture too, and the regularity of Saturday matches home or away. Sharing journeys makes sense, especially for those who live a significant distance from their clubs.
Soon after Jahmal Howlett-Mundle started playing for Southern Counties East Premier Division side Sheppey, he began carpooling with captain Billy Bennett and winger Harrison Carnegie from their homes in and around Croydon. Storytelling fills the trips, bookending the football - the day-to-day dramas of work, family highs and lows, follow-ups to messages left in the WhatsApp chat, and the back and forth between friends which Bennett describes as "forever funny".
A few months into this routine, their fraternity forged, a conversation circled around Howlett-Mundle and a young woman he had invited along to watch a previous game.
"We knew Jahmal was going out with her afterwards," recalls Carnegie, "but he told us that the relationship fizzled out and didn't go anywhere.
"Naturally, we asked him what happened, and he was telling the story. Yet the way he went about it, trying to get to the end - let's say it was taking longer than it should have. There were more than a few bendy roads in there."
Bennett sensed this hesitancy too. "I just remember - bless him - that Jahmal was absolutely sweating in the back of the car. I could see there was this pressure building, that he had something to say and was attempting to find a way to get the words out."
There was curiosity and good-natured encouragement from his fellow passengers. "Every so often, Jahmal would just burst into nervous laughter and look out the car window," says Carnegie, "so now our anticipation was really high, and I'm thinking the end of this story is going to be explosive.
"Eventually, Jahmal explained. He had told her that he liked someone else, and referring to this other person, he said: 'He was more my type...' And then again, with the emphasis: 'He was more my type.'
"I had to say, 'yeah... so?' Because honestly, in that moment, it felt like an anticlimax! But then of course, I quickly realised that for Jahmal, this was actually him coming out to us.
"It was a big deal for him. It wasn't so big as far as we were concerned but looking back, I can see that this weight was coming off his shoulders."
Reassurances were confirmed; the pressure dropped. Both as club captain and as a member of this "tight-knit bond" of Croydon to Sheppey commuters, Bennett - just like Carnegie - wanted his team-mate to feel truly at ease. "We were so accepting, and we made sure he knew that.
"We asked if he wanted to extend what he'd told us to the rest of the team, but he didn't quite feel ready at the time.
"Then came Covid, and the lockdowns. If it wasn't for that, he might have told the wider group earlier. But fast forward to the start of this season, and he did make that decision, once he knew everyone there and felt comfortable."
Overcoming a mental hurdle
Howlett-Mundle came out publicly as bisexual in late July, marking the end of what he tells Sky Sports was "a very long road". With his permission, the Sheppey media officer filmed a short video that went out on the club's social channels, showing the 24-year-old centre-back speaking in a pitchside huddle.
Bennett was part of that huddle, listening and watching as his friend explained how there is still "a sort of stigma" in football around sexuality. Being open about his own was a way to firmly reject any previous feelings of shame. "I'm happy in myself," Howlett-Mundle tells the gathering of Sheppey players, coaches, and staff before breaking into a huge smile. There is applause and mutual appreciation.
The clip went viral and suddenly what was once his secret became seen, discussed, and written about in local and national media. Since then, Howlett-Mundle has continued to graciously give his time to reporters, talking them through the process that led to him sharing such personal news, and how he hopes his experience can help to break down that lingering stigma.
Through it all, Bennett and Carnegie have been rock solid, much more than passengers on someone else's voyage into the unknown. Now, on September 23 - the annual Bi Visibility Day - the trio are taking an opportunity to raise more awareness about what strong allyship can achieve.
"Billy and Harrison have been absolutely amazing," says Howlett-Mundle of his friends. "They've definitely helped make me feel secure in the football environment.
"They're two of the best players that I've played with in non-league and two of the nicest men that I've met, in or out of football - family-oriented, really dedicated to their craft, excellent people.
"Knowing they have my back has given me the confidence to then go and be myself, such as on a night out, and not have to worry about what anybody else says."
Howlett-Mundle came through the youth system at Crystal Palace and in his mid-teens was part of an England Schoolboys camp, considered among the best 40 players nationally in his age group. Others at camp went on to make their names as professionals but injury curbed the centre-back's progress, and he was released by the Eagles in 2015.
Next came a spell in Edinburgh at Hearts but it proved not to be the launchpad for a professional career. He moved back down south to play for Dover, followed by stints at various other south-coast clubs. During this six-year stretch, there were times when being in the closet put severe strain on his mental health.
"I was really fearful, out of respect for my team-mates," he says. "There's a cliche of, 'oh, you're going to fancy someone in the changing room'. And I didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable stood next to me. I had to get over that hurdle."
There was a breakthrough while playing at Hastings United, when he spoke to boss Chris Agutter: "He was the first manager that I told that I was bisexual. He gave me a lot of support and would let me talk and just listen. It was space to breathe which I think he saw was what I needed. I was still only 21.
"But after I left there, in July 2019, I didn't play football for six months. Everything had sort of come to a head. I decided to let everyone know that I wasn't going to play but I didn't tell them why."
I wanted to come out a really long time ago... but I felt the more I leaned into it, the harder it was for me.
It was Carnegie who helped to persuade Howlett-Mundle back into non-league, midway through the 2019/20 campaign. The two players had clashed on the pitch when on opposite sides in a Hastings vs Whyteleafe encounter. "I remembered Jahmal as this angry young man. We'd won a penalty that he disputed, and the adrenaline had spilled over. But since then, I'd moved on to Sheppey, and as we were from the same area, I was asked to give him a call and try to maybe get him in.
"It's funny - you get a perception of someone when you're on a football pitch but it's completely different outside of it. Jahmal and I got on straight away and I ended up dropping him to training." The carpooling with Bennett commenced soon after and within just a few months, Howlett-Mundle was able to let go of the doubt that had held him back for so long.
Differences and difficulties
As far as coming out in men's team sports is concerned, it is still an age of pioneers, even while the rest of Western society appears to be surging ahead. Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders and Nashville Predators draftee Luke Prokop have recently pushed LGBTQ+ representation forward in the NFL and NHL respectively. In the UK, ice hockey's Zach Sullivan and rugby union's Levi Davis came out as bisexual in 2020, while in Ireland in July, another rugby player - Leinster's Jack Dunne - spoke publicly for the first time about being bi.
The cultural shift within British football is well underway too. After several years of inclusion campaigns, Pride initiatives and the rise of the women's game, greater understanding has permeated down through the divisions. Carnegie, who left Sheppey to join Walthamstow in the summer, has seen evidence of this throughout non-league.
"Times have changed massively," he says. "It's just that you don't necessarily notice the transition happening. Yes, we still have a culture of 'boys' banter' in changing rooms but from where I started, there is a professionalism now that wasn't there before. And I've played in multiple leagues, in different regions."
Bennett describes non-league as a "rollercoaster" but even he admits he hadn't witnessed a plot twist like the one that has occurred at Sheppey this season. Players who are gay or bi are certainly not unheard of, but those who are out remain vanishingly rare. What has he made of his team-mate's new-found visibility?
"Dressing rooms are full of different characters," he says. "Some people are introverts, some extroverts.
"For Jahmal, this was what he needed. Soon after he told me and Harrison in the car, I saw him laughing, joking, and getting more involved with things around the team. And since he gave his speech to all the boys, he's become an even better version of himself.
"At Sheppey, it's an empowering dressing room - everyone feels settled here. It's rare to get that bond. I think what's happened is a credit to the club, as much as it is to Jahmal."
It's been reflected in results. On the pitch, the team managed by Ernie Batten and his assistant Marcel Nimani has recorded an unbeaten start to their league season as they chase promotion up to Step 4, the eighth tier of the English pyramid. Nimani says Howlett-Mundle has been pivotal to their good start and is "one of the most professional individuals I have worked with".
Comparing his friend's performances before and after coming out, Carnegie says the defender is still as "commanding and competitive" but less tense and emotional now. Bennett expects Howlett-Mundle to kick on. "If he'd acted on this previously, he may have had a higher opportunity in the professional game because he's an outstanding player. But he's still a young lad - there's lots of football left in him."
Last Saturday, Howlett-Mundle was in the side as Sheppey saw off visitors Rochester United 4-1 in the Kent Senior Trophy. There was a new flag on display at the club's Holm Park ground for this match, purchased by the club's Independent Supporters Association - rainbow Pride colours with the slogan 'Sheppey "United" Against Discrimination'. There was more to the message than just a show of solidarity.
A week and a half after the huddle video hit social, there was an incident during an FA Cup preliminary round tie at Tower Hamlets. After the game, Sheppey issued a statement to say Howlett-Mundle had been verbally abused while playing. This was reported to the relevant authorities via written statements from players and the club, who continue to await the outcome of the investigation.
"It's sad that somebody has taken to my personal life to try and get under my skin," said the defender afterwards. It didn't take the shine off his sunny disposition, but it was a reminder that education hasn't reached everyone just yet.
Bennett believes it was an isolated incident but was no less disappointed to learn it had happened, particularly so soon after news of Howlett-Mundle coming out had broken on the non-league scene. However, homophobia often goes unreported at this level, in large part because few feel confident enough to state they have found the language offensive. Knowing the abuse is being taken seriously has encouraged everyone involved.
Carnegie has advised his friend that should such an incident occur again, a "robotic" response is necessary. "I told Jahmal that you have no control over what other people say - the only thing you can control is your reaction. I don't even think of it as a personal attack on him because they don't know him as a person. It's sad that this stuff happens and there's no excuse for it. But you just have to follow the process and report it."
A modern football family
Does visibility have a downside? Howlett-Mundle doesn't think so, as disappointing as the incident at Tower Hamlets was. "There's a lot that people don't see, such as how I feel inside and being able to be 100 per cent myself. But they do see me smiling now, and that's an amazing feeling - everyone deserves to smile and be happy."
Google Assumptions x #BiVisibilityDay 💗💜💙— Football v Homophobia Youth Panel (@FvHyouth) September 23, 2021
6pm on YouTube: https://t.co/H066BWNQS4
Join Communications Officer @Sam_AEC, Co-Coordinator @Angharad___ and special guest,@SheppeyUFC defender @jhmundle!@FvHtweets | @SportsMediaLGBT | #BiAwarenessWeek pic.twitter.com/K2kX8cAXHB
One factor that continues to put off footballers from coming out is the potential for attention from the media, more so the higher up the leagues you go. Bennett was among those who mentioned this when Howlett-Mundle was weighing up the degree of openness he wanted to aim for.
"Yeah, I did say to him that it will blow up - and it has done. But I also stressed that however much coverage the story got, the club would support him. And they have been brilliant.
"Seeing how it's gone, I feel it's good he got it out there. There are probably a lot of other players in his position, and a lot too in the same position as I am, wanting to be welcoming and supportive to someone if they came out. Because those players haven't gone through it, maybe they turn a blind eye or think it doesn't happen. But it's the 21st century - of course it happens."
One evening last year, back in south London, the three team-mates went out to a local bar for a few drinks. Carnegie and Bennett were already seeing a happier, relaxed Howlett-Mundle, more at ease with socialising as friends away from football. "Jahmal was getting a lot of attention off this one woman but his attention was diverted elsewhere - and about five minutes later, we saw him over at the bar talking to this guy."
Bennett grins when reminded of the night out. "He was checking him out! It was then I really understood the plunge of it all - Jahmal just going over there for a chat and coming back, and being free to talk about that casually with friends. He wouldn't have been able to do that if he'd kept bottling everything up."
Carnegie was impressed too. "When Jahmal came back over, I was asking him what's up, who was that guy - giving him the third degree, as I would with any of my friends on a night out. Honestly, I thought it was pretty cool for him to find that confidence to go over and speak to someone while on a night out with us. That definitely wouldn't have happened before."
It's just one example of how visibility has made Howlett-Mundle's life less complicated. He no longer has to compartmentalise sport and social situations. "I know that whatever environment I'm in, I don't have to explain myself. That was something that I really struggled with."
A weight lifted, and a wait ended. "Now I can look forward to the future." He still can't stop smiling.
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