'People always assume I'm white' - Plumptre on playing for Nigeria

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Ashleigh Plumptre celebrates a win with NigeriaAshleigh Plumptre helped Nigeria to a 2-0 win over Ivory Coast on her debut

"I know the importance of representing something bigger than me."

Ashleigh Plumptre repeats these words when talking about playing for hometown Women's Super League club Leicester City, as well as switching national allegiances to play for Nigeria.

Despite being a lifelong Foxes fan, as a youngster the defender "saw the badge" of the club she supported as representing only a men's team.

The former England youth international also never considered that her Nigerian heritage would lead to a call-up to play for the Super Falcons - the nine-time African champions who she made her debut for last week.

But then again, a career of any sort in football was not something she envisioned.

"When I was younger, my dream was never to be a professional footballer," she told BBC East Midlands Today. "Football has pushed me beyond my boundaries."

It's because of her involvement in the game that she has explored her ancestry - something she admits she previously "never delved into much".

Plumptre is mixed heritage and proud.

She is eligible to play for the West African country through her paternal grandfather.

In January, she was cleared by Fifa to play for Nigeria and made her senior debut in their Africa Women's Cup of Nations (Awcon) qualifying play-off first-leg victory against the Ivory Coast last week.

The Leicester-born and raised 23-year-old says she "grew up British" but added that she got a "great sense of pride" when she first travelled to Nigeria to meet up with her new international team-mates.

"It's always been an assumption that I'm white," said Plumptre.

"I get a lot of messages and people question my heritage a lot, but I can't necessarily blame them. It comes down to education.

"What people see is what they think. People don't want to have the conversation or want to consider anything deeper than what they see.

"It's putting a marker down. It's not just what you predict a Nigerian to be. For me, I know the importance of representing something bigger than me.

"I'm representing the mixed-race community and especially for the younger ones coming through. You don't have to look a certain way or be told you are a certain way, you can feel it and you can be it."

How football has pushed Plumptre beyond her boundaries

Plumptre knows her experience is a personal one. Her younger sister, who has a darker complexion, is also exploring her African roots.

"My sister asked me if I've ever had anything racist said to me and part of me felt guilty because my answer was 'no'. There is a feeling of helplessness when in these conversations with my sister.

"I want to empower her and in that conversation she wanted comfort in knowing that I had gone through something similar, but I couldn't give her that.

"When people first questioned my heritage it shocked me. But how could I let that affect me when I'm still getting the opportunity? My sister, she can hear things which are way worse and because of that she may not get the same opportunities as me."

Ashleigh Plumptre playing for England at Under-17 levelAshleigh Plumptre was involved in England youth sides from Under-15 to Under-23 level

Plumptre made her WSL debut as a 16-year-old with Notts County, but her childhood aspirations of one day going to medical school and becoming a doctor saw her move to the United States in 2016.

Her experience with the Magpies, which included being on the bench for the first ever Women's FA Cup final at Wembley, is something she says she "will never forget".

But it is in the US that she says her career was truly transformed.

"I was pretty much taught to be a defender while out there, which was a big transition as I'd only ever played as an attacking player," she said.

After graduating with a degree in human biology from the University of Southern California, she decided to return to English football in December 2019, joining a fast-rising and ambitious Leicester City as they pushed for promotion to the WSL for the first time.

Ashleigh Plumptre celebrates scoring for Leicester CityAshleigh Plumptre, who scored her first WSL goal in Leicester City's 3-0 win against West Ham on Sunday, says she is focused on her football career these days but remains passionate about healthcare

"I followed the women's team when younger but they were always in a really low league," Plumptre said. "Growing up I was always a fan, but I recognised that badge as LCFC not LCFC Women. I never expected to play for the senior side."

Aged 21, that changed as she signed her first professional deal with the Foxes and promotion to the top flight as Championship title winners followed in her first full season at the club in 2020-21.

The priority now, she says, is to keep the club in the WSL. She helped the Foxes' cause before the international break, scoring her first ever WSL goal as they beat West Ham 3-0 to move eight points away from the relegation spot.

"Signing for Leicester was everything I wanted it to be," said Plumptre. "I knew when I finished university in America I wanted to be somewhere that I really cared about.

"Leicester is the team I grew up supporting, it's my home, it's where I started playing football and went to school. For me it meant more to represent something bigger than me."

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