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‘I Needed To Play For A Purpose’: The Story Behind Ashleigh Plumptre’s Nigeria Call-Up

From the outside looking in, Ashleigh Plumptre’s journey to playing professional football for her hometown club Leicester City would seem a relatively straightforward one.

Dig a bit deeper, beyond the natural progression up the England age groups, time in the WSL and experience at a top college programme, and there’s so much more than a simple path to being an international athlete.

The 23-year-old took the footballing route that many women choose, heading to the US to play for an NCAA Division 1 side. Plumptre went to the University of Southern California and won a national championship in her freshman year.

Ashleigh Plumptre

But, for Plumptre, education was always the priority, not playing professional football, “I was nervous to play professional football,” she says on Zoom from her younger sister’s state-of-the-art drum room, “I think out of fear, I hate failing and the feeling of potentially not being good enough.” She studied human biology at USC in order to leave the door open to eventually training in medicine, something she admits is now no longer a focus.

The impressive room Plumptre is sitting in has not one but two drum kits and is complete with soundproof padding. I ask her if her younger sister plays in a band. “She’s only 11,” she laughs.

The set-up behind Plumptre is fit for a musical prodigy and as we continue to chat it becomes clear that this room symbolises the commitment of Plumptre’s father Tim to ensuring his kids can live out their dreams.

She explains: “My dad was always of the mindset that you should do everything you can to be successful in whatever area you want to be successful in. He drives an HGV van and my step mum is a part-time hairdresser, we don’t have a lot of money. All this kit is really expensive but he’ll put everything into making sure that we have what it takes to be the best, the best for us, not the best for anyone else.”

When Plumptre was younger her father would take her to do extra running after school. He even took some old tyres from a tanker he drove and drilled holes in so that she could get some extra resistance when running up hills. He was devoted to ensuring his daughter could be the best.

Plumptre spent some time at Leicester City as a junior, before moving to Birmingham City, Derby County and Notts County, where she gained some cut-throat WSL experience at just 16.

At 18 she made the move to the US, not thinking beyond her studies, but after three years in college she realised she wanted to give professional football a go and her dad was the person she needed to call to make it happen, “I needed to be somewhere that meant something,” she recalls, “so I spoke to my dad and I said, ‘I’m going to play professional football and I need you to get in contact with Leicester’.”

She joined Leicester City in December 2019, turning down offers from WSL clubs to join her hometown club in the second tier, and played a key role in the Championship title-winning campaign in 2020-21.

Then came the call to play for Nigeria, the country of her paternal grandfather, who was born in Lagos.

Plumptre had turned down opportunities to join the Super Falcons while at college, but after achieving promotion to the WSL, it suddenly felt right to explore the opportunity. Nigerian culture was already a part of her life through parties, celebrations and even football kits: “I used to play football in a full Nigeria Jay-Jay Okocha kit when I was younger,” she says. But this would be a way to really connect with her heritage and even learn some Yoruba language from her grandfather’s side.

She’s yet to win her first cap as she waits on the final paperwork to be sorted, but since joining up with the team for a camp, she’s realised playing for them will mean a lot more than just international football.

Plumptre says: “I needed to play for a purpose and my reasons for doing it are mainly to do with my sister. She’s always been able to talk to me about everything and I’ve always supported her, but there’s one thing, as much as I tried, I would never be able to empathise with her experiences at school when it came to race.

“My sister is a darker skin tone than me and has more of an afro. I always grew up with people just thinking I’m white. When we talk about things that would happen to her in school I would feel so helpless.

“She’s so passionate to know about her heritage as well and I thought: what better way to do it than playing for Nigeria, getting the opportunity to go to Nigeria and being in and around the language and the culture? It’s a way for me to say I’m still with you, even though I’ve not gone through what you’re going through at school. I’m representing us.”

The reaction from her sister Bailey made it even more worthwhile for Plumptre: “I put her to bed one night and she said, ‘Ash, I’m so proud of you’. I could tell it definitely meant something to her.”

Plumptre has her purpose with the Nigerian national team and it doesn’t need trophies, World Cup or AFCON qualification for it to be fulfilled. For her, it’s about learning as a footballer and her heritage.

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