Extra-time goal sees Grecians head back to Wembley.
Some things are certain in life. Death, taxes and in recent years, Exeter City reaching the League 2 Playoff final. Monday’s 3-1 extra-time victory over Colchester at St James Park sees Exeter return to Wembley determined it will be third time lucky, following defeats to Blackpool and Coventry 2017 and 2018 respectively. They will face Northampton Town in the final, after they secured a miraculous 3-0 win away at Cheltenham to overturn a 2-0 aggregate deficit.
Exeter themselves also had to fight back, trailing on aggregate after Cohen Bramall had secured Colchester a 1-0 lead on Thursday night.
This was Exeter’s first home match since the lockdown had dictated professional football matches could only go ahead behind closed doors, however the Grecians were still keen to make sure that ‘fans’ could still be in the stadium, as supporters paid £25 for cardboard cut-outs of themselves to be placed in the main stand.
Exeter made four changes from Thursday’s first leg as Matt Taylor freshened up his side, most notably in goal, where Jonny Maxted replaced Lewis Ward.
Thursday’s performance had seen Exeter struggle to break down the Colchester defence, that match being the first time this season they had failed to register a shot on target. They started the second leg though at a rate of knots and restored parity on aggregate in the 10th minute as Aaron Martin opened the scoring with a powerful drive after Colchester’s defence had done well to stop efforts from Alex Fisher and Jake Taylor. It was a richly deserved goal for the home side and Exeter continued to put Colchester on the back foot.
In the 23rd minute, Colchester offered their first noteworthy attack as a Ryan Jackson cross was only parried by Maxted, the Exeter goalkeeper relieved to see a teammate clear the ball to safety. Minutes later, Exeter almost scored a second as a Randall Williams freekick produced a flying save from Colchester keeper Dean Gerken. At halftime, Exeter lead 1-0 on the night, with the scores level on aggregate at 1-1.
The second half started as the first ended, both sides offering up attacking threats but Exeter looking the stronger, Randall Williams showing all those watching why he has been such potent attacking threat for Taylor’s side this season.
On 58 minutes, Exeter moved ahead on aggregate after a Jayden Richardson strike squirmed under the body of Dean Gerken. A wonderous swerving cross from Nicky Law was met by striker Ryan Bowman, his glancing header hitting the post. The rebound was swept up by Alex Fisher who fed Richardson to fire under the dismayed Gerken.
Colchester continued to press in search of a goal to level the tie and they found it on 78 minutes. After Frank Nouble had played the ball to first-leg winner Cohen Brammall, his cross was palmed away by Maxted, directly into the path of Courtney Senior, who buried his shot into the net, reducing the deficit to 2-1 on the night. The game was now opening up as Senior went close to doubling his tally for the night, before Colchester player Ryan Jackson almost diverted the ball into his own net, the ball whistling past the post for an Exeter corner.
The visitors looked to have created a gilt-edged chance to send themselves to Wembley in the 90th minute as Theo Robinson fed through Kwame Poku one-on-one with Maxted. The Exeter keeper redeemed himself though for his earlier error, producing a fine save to deny Colchester and ensure the game went to extra-time.
If anything, Colchester looked to be the favourites as extra-time began after they had finished the 90 minutes with far more possession, looking a more potent attacking threat the longer the game went on. The short period after fulltime appeared to benefit Exeter however, with boss Matt Taylor tweaking his formation slightly. It worked wonders as in the 111th minute, striker Ryan Bowman scored the goal that sealed a return to Wembley. After a busting run through the centre of the field, midfielder Archie Collins’ through-ball sent Bowman clear, Exeter’s number 12 coolly slotting past Gerken to put Exeter 3-1 ahead on the night and 3-2 ahead on aggregate.
From there, Exeter controlled the final minutes of extra-time to seal their place at Wembley on Monday 29th June where they will face Northampton Town. It was a thoroughly deserved victory for Matt Taylor’s side, with their season now to be decided by one final match under the famous Wembley arch.