Ashleigh Plumptre on joining Al Ittihad and trying to develop women's game in kingdom

Nigerian international and former English Women's Super League footballer is aiming to pass on her knowledge to players in Saudi Arabia

Ashleigh Plumptre scores a hat-trick in her first Jeddah derby

Ashleigh Plumptre scores a hat-trick in her first Jeddah derby
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Nigeria international Ashleigh Plumptre may have swapped the Women’s Super League in England for the incipient Saudi Arabian top-flight, but the Al Ittihad defender feels she is “meant to be here” as she plays a pivotal role in developing the women’s game in the kingdom.

Plumptre, 25, represents one of the most high-profile recruits to the still nascent Saudi Women’s Premier League having last summer moved to Jeddah.

The defender, whose contract with Leicester City expired in July, first joined her hometown club aged eight. She went on to help the senior team gain promotion for the first time to the top tier of English women’s football, in 2021.

Plumptre, whose father is her agent, said she had initially questioned why she would give up Leicester for a fresh project in Saudi. At the time, she was also preparing to feature for Nigeria – Plumptre represented England at youth level – at the 2023 Fifa World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

However, Plumptre followed her father’s advice and, without even knowing which club were interested in signing her, was soon convinced during an hour-long phone call with manager Kelly Lindsey and key figures at Ittihad that Saudi constituted the right destination for the next step in her career.

“From the off, they probably knew who I was. We had an hour conversation – head coach, general managers – [and] most of the time we didn't even speak about football,” Plumptre said in an interview released on Wednesday by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF).

“It was more about who we are as people, the things that we value and care about, and the ambitions we have as individuals. I felt totally aligned with the people I was talking to, and I came off that call and I said to my dad, ‘Yeah, that's where I need to be’.

“I visited [Jeddah] and it again just confirmed I'm exactly where I'm meant to be. It happened very unexpectedly, but also, I felt I was at a point where I knew my journey in football has always been reflective of me as a person.

“I believe more in people than I do individual success. I feel like I find the most fulfilment from being a part of something bigger than myself and I felt that straight away.”

Plumptre, who excelled for Nigeria as they reached the knockout stages of last summer’s World Cup, has evidently settled well in Saudi. She scored a hat-trick on debut, away at Dammam’s Eastern Flames, then netted another treble in the December derby with Al Ahli.

“Honestly, I came here, I didn't want to have any expectation,” Plumptre said. “I knew that I was following a feeling and then when I came here, I was like, ‘OK, well this is where I am’, and I felt I put myself in positions to try to just be open with everything, really.

“If I held on to some kind of expectation, I feel that would've taken away from what I could have brought because I would've been so influenced by somebody else's opinion.

“I saw the level of play, and a lot of people were asking me before I came, ‘It is going to be a drop in standard for you, how you think you cope?’ I said, ‘You're not really understanding the reason that I'm coming here'.

“That's something that I accept because I feel like I have a role in trying to help that. But the reason we're also here is to help these Saudi players who are sponges and want to learn.”

Plumptre says she is keen to lend her considerable experience to her Saudi teammates, but added that she would give advice only whenever she believes it is needed. She said she has improved, too, since joining Ittihad, especially in adding goals to her game. Plumptre has found the net seven times in 10 league matches.

“All of us internationals are all so different from one another, and we all provide something different”, she said. “Even with the Saudi players. Honestly, I look in the changing room sometimes and I think there's nobody that's the same, but we are all connected through, not just football, but this element of trust and striving for something bigger that we've all bought into.

“And it's not something that happens overnight. The staff has a big part to play in that as well. But a lot of us [place emphasis on] it being like a family and that genuinely is how it feels. We're on this journey for this season and going forward.

“I feel like we've all bought into one another, and I see it off the pitch and on the pitch. We have connections that I haven't experienced anything like this on a team I've been on before.”

After 10 rounds this season, Ittihad sit fourth in the eight-team table, although only one point behind second place. Al Nassr, who were last year crowned champions of the league’s inaugural edition, hold an 11-point lead at the summit.

“Our head coach [Lindsay is a former US international who managed both Morocco and Afghanistan women’s national teams] talks about authenticity and that's one of the first things that connected me to her,” Plumptre said.

“If I know that I'm being truly and wholly myself, I believe that whatever will come from that was meant to. So I don’t know what [success at Ittihad] will look like, but hopefully some kind of impact on other people and a lasting imprint on me.”

Plumptre added: “I came here because of the same reason I joined Nigeria: I want to learn and be a part of something that grows and expands who I am. I always say I can't change the world, but I believe in the power of human connection.

“And I believe if I can have an influence or an impact on just a couple of individuals, or just know people’s stories and really empathise with them, and they know mine, you have a lasting imprint on somebody.

“I don't know how long I'll be here for, but if I know that I can impact a young girl or a teammate of mine who's not been playing for as long as me, then that's something that will stay with me for ever; not something that I can put on the mantlepiece, and it gets dusty in a couple years.”

Updated: March 14, 2024, 2:24 PM