Right to her core, Ashleigh Plumptre is a Leicester City player. Growing up in Melton Mowbray, about a 30 minutes’ drive from the city, the 24-year-old defender played for the club’s centre of excellence from the age of eight to 14, having started playing a few years earlier for a local girls’ side.
“I was one of those kids that just always wanted to be active,” Plumptre says. She recalls getting home from school, dropping off her bags before playing football outside until “my mum would say I had to be home for dinner”.
As a teenager she temporarily left her hometown club, where she would later sign her first professional contract. As Leicester’s senior women were relegated from the third tier in 2013, Plumptre was tempted by Birmingham, a founding member of the Women’s Super League, where she joined their under-17 squad. After that followed a brief period at Derby, before she joined Notts County, who were then a WSL side.
In 2016, Plumptre moved to the US on a scholarship at the University of Southern California, where she majored in human biology. Her college side won the National Championship that year and were invited to the White House. Of that time, she says: “It influenced so many things in my life, and not just football, I found out more about myself, what I’m passionate about.”
But her ambitions never strayed far from returning to Leicester. By this point, the club had risen through the ranks to the Championship. After graduating in 2019 and despite interest from a few WSL sides, Plumptre was set on Leicester. Her father, also her agent, approached the club directly. The deal she signed has since extended it until at least next June.
“[It] meant a lot to me to sign for Leicester because it was the club I’ve always supported and I grew up here,” she says. “I felt valued here, and I felt like I had a purpose here in trying to bring success to the club.”
After joining, Plumptre played a key role in securing Leicester’s promotion to the WSL for the 2021-22 season. Money likely helped, too: her team went fully professional in August 2020, after it was bought by King Power. “All the investment … it showed in the players that we brought in, and [promotion] was everybody’s mindset from the beginning,” she says.
Football, though, is far more than just a sport to Plumptre. “I have to have a purpose in it,” she says. “I struggle just to play it.” Case in point: she is an ambassador for Menphys, a local charity supporting young people with disabilities, which has supported her brother, who is autistic. (Plumptre has two younger brothers and a sister, all half-siblings.)
It was also in this mindset that, during the coronavirus lockdowns, Plumptre began thinking more about her Nigerian heritage: her paternal grandfather was born in Lagos.
Soon, she was talking to her 12-year-old sister about it. “Even though we have the same dad, we both have a Nigerian dad and a white mum, she looks a little different to me and has experienced things in school that I never had,” she says. “Most people just assume that I’m white. I identify as being mixed heritage. But my sister … she identifies as being black.”
“I felt a bit helpless in that,” she says of learning about her sister’s experiences. Plumptre had played for England’s youth squads, including at Under-23 level but this year switched her allegiance to Nigeria, making her official debut in February. She says: “That’s where I’m like: ‘OK, Nigeria would be good for me to do because then I can experience the culture more, I can come back and teach her about our heritage.’ That was the trigger for me.”
Having not visited Nigeria until last year, Plumptre has embraced playing for the west African country. “I love the culture, I honestly love everything about being in Nigeria,” she says. She has also “realised how lucky I’ve been to just have been born in this country, the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with”. She adds: “My Nigerian teammates, for example, they’ve worked so hard but sometimes they don’t get the same opportunities based upon the teams that they’re playing in, the lack of exposure that they have. It’s a privilege to play with them.” Next year, she hopes to make the squad to represent Nigeria at the World Cup.
Back at Leicester, Plumptre faces a turbulent season ahead. With her side having lost their first seven matches, a relegation battle looks likely. But after fighting off the drop last season, she’s hopeful. “We know how it feels and we know how to get out of it so ultimately everybody is pretty much keeping the faith,” she says. “We know we can get results.”
What else does she want to achieve? “I just want to have an impact by being myself, I don’t really know what that looks like yet,” she says. “I want to help people, that’s all.”
Get to know the players in England’s top flight better with our WSL player in focus series. Read all our interviews here.