Ashleigh Plumptre played alongside Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly and Georgia Stanway in the youth stages of her international career but on Monday she will line up against them as her Nigeria team take on Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup.
Plumptre won 30 caps across England’s youth teams but never received a call-up to the senior squad. She was cleared by Fifa to switch allegiances to Nigeria, for whom she is eligible to play through her paternal grandfather, and made her debut for the country in 2022. The 25-year-old defender attributes the reason behind the switch to her younger sister.
“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,” Plumptre has said. “Most people just assume that I’m white. I identify as being mixed heritage. But my sister … she identifies as being black.
“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.”
Before progressing to senior football Plumptre, who recently left Leicester City but is yet to confirm her new club, made appearances at various tournaments for England including a 2014 Nordic tournament for the under-16s. The young Lionesses played Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands and were coached by the former England player Marieanne Spacey-Cale.
“What stood out to me at that tournament about Ashleigh, even at that young age, she had her head screwed on,” says Spacey-Cale, who is head of girls and women’s football at Southampton and a player and coach developer for the Football Association. “She kind of knew what she wanted and was quite clear on how she wanted to do it.
“In that tournament she was a flying winger. I know she has now developed into a centre-back. She was really quick, she was direct. She wanted to be on the ball and beat players to get crosses and shots on goal. The fact she had such a sweet, cultured left foot at that age, she could really strike the ball well. Delivery of crosses and set pieces; she already had such a strong technique.”
Plumptre played predominantly as a midfielder or forward throughout her England youth career and it was not until she went to college in America that she considered becoming a defender. She studied at the University of Southern California, majoring in human biology and being part of the college team USC Trojans and she was switched to right-back temporarily after the position became available. Her coach later played her as a centre-back regularly; she has not looked back.
“To have a balance across the backline with a left-footed centre-back is quite rare,” Spacey-Cale says on what she has made of Plumptre’s position switch. “The fact she has made her international career now as a defender, I think it goes to show people can put players in boxes at young ages but as the years go on you see a different side to them. I think she has done exceptionally well. She has played in the WSL as a centre-back, she is holding her own in that competition. The decision was the right one.”
With Nigeria, Plumptre has more of a full-back role and she has said she was initially nervous in the position: “Being on the world stage, it’s not something that I play there all the time. So my first game against Canada, I was probably the most nervous I’ve been for a game. Just because, I know it’s still a defensive position, but it’s a bit different than being a centre-back. But it’s nice now where I can find myself getting forward, whereas at centre-back I never could. I enjoy it.”
She has started every match of this World Cup in Nigeria’s backline, the country’s defenders only conceding two goals so far – in their famous 3-2 victory against the co-hosts Australia. The win, as well as two 0-0 draws with Canada and Ireland, led the country to pip Canada to the Group B runners-up spot – setting up a last-16 match with the European champions.
If Plumptre helps to knock England out of a tournament they are among the favourites to win, the cliche from commentators will be said over the mics everywhere: “You couldn’t write a script like it.” Just maybe Plumptre can.