Cohen Bramall’s 80th minute strike was the difference as Colchester took a vital lead into the second leg of the League Two Play-off semi-final.
Exeter now face an uphill battle to make the Play-off final after Bramall’s superb free kick gave Colchester a 1-0 victory at an empty Community Stadium.
In a cagey affair with few chances, Exeter looked to be heading home with a draw after a solid defensive display, but the full-back’s excellent curling left-footed strike opened the scoring for the tie.
Form was irrelevant going into the match given the obvious gap since either side last played, but it was still a surprise to see Theo Robinson, Colchester’s top scorer this season, starting on the bench.
The game began on a sombre note, with a minute’s applause for the NHS followed by the players and officials taking a knee at the first whistle. It was great to see both sides following the Premier League’s example in using their exposure to make a difference.
It was a tense affair in the first few minutes, as Exeter looked comfortable in possession thanks to Nicky Law, but failed to force chances. Colchester used their pace out wide, particularly from right back Ryan Jackson to counter attack well, though Jack Sparkes was able to nullify the threat, part of an organised defence.
Randell Williams often worked his way forward on the right for Exeter but struggled to find a ball into the centre. The first serious chance of the game came after 20 minutes, when Bramall hit a dipping free kick straight at Lewis Ward in the Exeter goal and forced a save. It would prove to be the only shot on target othe than the goal.
Exeter’s best chance of the half came when Aaron Martin found Nicky Law in space at the edge of the box, but his shot was one of many blocked in a game dominated by defence.
The visitors began to settle into the game after half time, as the ball rarely found its way out of Colchester’s half in the opening 15 minutes, but the Grecians struggled to create in the final third, meaning a dangerous-looking free kick into the side-netting from substitute Matt Jay approaching the hour mark was all they had to show for their dominance.
Colchester’s pace on the wing from Ryan Jackson and Frank Nouble continued to occupy Exeter’s defence as the game entered its final minutes, and they had something to show for it in the 80th minute when Nouble won a dangerous free kick.
Having already tested Ward, Bramall stepped up to take just outside the box on the right wing. Despite the unlikely angle and men in the box, the Colchester full back wrong-footed Ward with a wonderfully whipped effort at the near post, leaving the keeper with nothing to do bare palm the ball into his own net.
The Grecians refused to let their heads dropped after this late blow but could only manage a wide volley from Brennan Dickenson in the last few minutes, and the game finished 1-0 to Colchester.
Overall a nervy game, understandably lacking in quality from both sides after a long break from football, and with very few chances from open play. The Grecians can take definite positives from the game though, as they looked solid in defence and moved the ball well in midfield.
See @exeposesport for As It Happened coverage provided by James Bagby