IN CONVERSATION: Nigeria’s Ashleigh Plumptre “I feel almost like, if you step on that pitch you have no choice but to fight because that is the minimum expectation”

Nigeria’s defender #02 Ashleigh Plumptre is seen in action during the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women’s World Cup Group B football match between Ireland and Nigeria at Brisbane Stadium in Brisbane on July 31, 2023. (Photo by Patrick Hamilton / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP via Getty Images)

After Nigeria’s 0-0 draw with Republic of Ireland, which saw the girls in green exit the tournament with their first point, we had a chat in the mixed zone with cheerful defender and former England youth international Ash Plumptre. We talked about how much the 25-year-old from Leicester is relishing the experience of playing for the Super Falcons at a World Cup (after switching nationalities in 2022) and it is a really honest and uplifting exchange. And extra interesting with a certain match to be played later today!

On whether she spends every waking hour smiling:

Does it seem that way? Because I do get a jaw ache! Yeah, you know what this whole journey – and it’s not just been like the last four weeks or so – being on this team, it’s been the last couple years of a journey, literally getting here. And I’m just trying to soak up every moment as much as I can. I’m just trying to be present in all of it and not think too far ahead. Because I was thinking on the way to this game, I can’t believe we have played two games already, you know, so I’m just trying to  soak up everything and just enjoy it all. 

On two clean sheets and why the defence is doing so well:

Honestly? It’s just will. We have very good attacking players. But defensively, I think we pride ourselves in throwing our body in front of things and trying to protect the goal as much as possible and it’s nice to be on a team that’s like that. I do enjoy defending. I mean, being a defender, I feel like you have to say that! But yeah, it’s nice to be able to now be a part of that going forward as well, being in a different position. 

On having had quite a lot of practice at defending deeply in the WSL last season:

Yeah, I know. It’s almost like I’m accustomed to that now! [laughing]

On how she is finding playing full back:

When I’m with Nigeria, I’m pretty much playing full back all of the time but it does make me nervous because I think 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. 

Nigeria’s defender #02 Ashleigh Plumptre controls the ball during the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women’s World Cup Group B football match between Ireland and Nigeria at Brisbane Stadium in Brisbane on July 31, 2023. (Photo by Patrick Hamilton / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP via Getty Images)

On what’s it like playing alongside somebody who’s been to six World Cups?:

The fact that I’m just making my first one and she’s played at six, almost the amount of years I’ve been playing football, she’s been at world cups. She has a lot of experience, she has a lot of like professionalism about her and brings that to the environment. And it’s very noticeable. It’s good for all of us.
When I first joined the team, I was a bit like, hesitant, you know, because I was new and she was like, “No, Ash, you need to be vocal.” So I was okay, right, I’ve gotta be vocal, now that she said it. She’s a big presence on the team, for sure. 

On playing in front of big numbers in the crowd, mainly against them (Australia & Ireland games in particular): 

I actually said to Rash [Ajibade] during the national anthem. I was like, let’s just pretend this green is OUR green, you know, because there were a lot of Irish fans here! But I think, when you get on the pitch you don’t always hear it because you’re so involved in the game, but I actually really enjoy being an underdog. So, I don’t mind having a lot of fans against us. 

On whether she has thought about what might happen if they play England: 

It’s already been in my mind. I was like, it’s gonna end up that way. I know it is going to but I would love to. I know a lot of the players, I grew up playing with a lot of them, play against them, week in and week out. So I would completely relish that opportunity. We’ll see how it goes but I would, I would love to play them. 

On the spirit and culture in the team and how it helps them bond:

I like that question because I think that’s what I find the most fulfilling part of being on this team. I genuinely feel like I’m part of something bigger. I feel like I’m really valued from where I’ve been brought up and I’ve been taken in. A lot of the girls always say to me… even just then, Osi [Osinachi Ohale] the other centre back just kind of put her arm around me and was like, “You have Nigerian spirit.” I’ve been brought into this team, the first camp I’ve been on I was really welcomed. And the experiences that I have with this team I’ve never had in my football career, ever. It’s really hard to put into words to be honest. Most of the time I get really like, before every game, yeah, every game this tournament so far, I’ve cried. Every time. And it’s normally when we’re like dancing and singing into the stadium. I think FIFA posted it somewhere when we were dancing and I had my head down, because I was crying. Really embarrassing, but I get really overwhelmed by it because culturally, it feels so so powerful. And I’m just lucky to be part of it. 

They laugh at me because I’m not very good at dancing and I can’t sing but I clap along, I join in. Like I said, I think the reason I wanted to be on this team to begin with is just to learn. It’s way more than football for me, it’s more of a family decision and me exploring my heritage. It’s the whole football experience isn’t just like, being on the pitch, it’s everything up until that point and everything after so. It’s definitely life-changing.

On the spirit in practices always being high, morale is always high and how that relates into the game and why they are doing so well: 

100%. I feel almost like, if you step on that pitch you have no choice but to fight because that is the minimum expectation. And if somebody isn’t they will hold you accountable for that. And I know people have been talking about us being really, really defensive at times but we also have the belief that we can be really defensive and still get up the pitch. And I feel like, that’s probably been one of our firepowers in the last couple games, because, yeah, we’ve been defending a lot, but we’ve actually got a few goals. 

On whether the days of Nigeria being considered an ‘underdog’ are numbered:

That’s true. I don’t feel like people underestimate this team. I know a couple of the girls on the Irish team and they knew that it was going to be a tough challenge for them and I feel like our results now are proving that. But I still think going into this group, we were the underdog based on the rankings, which I think is interesting in itself. But, I think any African team, we talk about how we represent more than Nigeria, it’s Africa as a continent and the other African teams in the tournament, they were backing us as well. A couple of Zambian girls sent us a video (to one of our goalkeepers) and it was shared on our group chat. This was when we were playing Australia – they wished us luck and stuff.

On the theme of dual nationals choosing which national team to represent and how that’s possibly going to impact women’s football globally:

I feel like people have different reasons for wanting to play for a different country. For me, obviously, I grew up playing for England and I enjoyed my time with them but I always say it was always more of a life decision than a football decision. I felt like I had a responsibility to try and play for Nigeria, if I could. And that just came from experiences within family. I’ve got my younger sister and I used to coach an U12s team with girls with mixed heritage girls. I feel like I have a responsibility to learn about my heritage and I have the privilege of being able to play football and use that to be able to learn, so it came about like that for me. But I think we’ll see more stories, more players explaining why they want to switch to a different team or whatever. And it’s not an easy decision. I feel like a lot of people just think, “Oh, you’re switching so it means that you can play international football.” It’s not like that at all.

For me, it wasn’t difficult because I knew exactly what I wanted from football and I think that just came down from understanding who I am. On my journey, I’ve learned more about myself and I know what I want from football. And I always say, “For me, it’s more than just playing.” It sounds really weird but I always say I’m not obsessed with football, specifically, I’m obsessed with what I can learn about myself from playing. And that’s why playing for Nigeria would probably be the most fulfilling thing I could do. Not to say that my experiences were ever bad with England, they never were, but it was just more that my life went on a different course. And I’m like, hmm, this is important for me, for my sister, for my family and for the young people who identify as being mixed heritage.

On what she has learned from being part of the team: 

That you can grow a lot from vulnerability. I feel as if I have put myself in really uncomfortable situations. I’m somebody that’s come from a very small town and I don’t necessarily like to be known, or anything. I get nervous all the time, I lack a lot of confidence. People say, I shouldn’t say that, but I do. But I’ve learned how to grow as an individual by putting myself in those situations and I’ve noticed how I’ve been able to grow confidence and self belief from putting myself in those situations. It’s always more than football. That’s what this experience has given me, for sure. 

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