A late free-kick from Cohen Bramall was all that separated the two sides in the first leg of the Sky Bet League Two play-off semi-final as Colchester overcame Exeter City 1-0 in Essex.
Grecians boss Matt Taylor was able to bring Jack Sparkes back into the fold following a lengthy stint out injured, while fellow academy graduates Joel Randall, Archie Collins and Ben Seymour were all named on the extended nine-man bench.
The Grecians started the game positively, looking comfortable in possession, and Ryan Bowman had the first meaningful effort on goal as he met Randell Williams’ corner in the ninth minute, although the striker’s effort was comfortable over Gerken’s goal.
Cohen Bramall was the first Colchester player to test Lewis Ward, with a free-kick that the Exeter goalkeeper was equal to, pushing the ball over his own crossbar. City replied with pressure of their own, with a throw-in routine leading to Lee Martin pulling the ball back for Nicky Law, but his shot was deflected wide.
Williams was then involved again, sending a cross in from the right-hand side with 30 minutes on the clock, although there was nobody on the end of it. A calf injury to Lee Martin forced Matt Taylor into his first change of the game after 38 minutes.
Into the second half, and a superb recovery from Dean Moxey prevented Frank Nouble from getting a shot away as the Colchester man broke down the Grecian left-hand side with 49 minutes on the clock.
Senior’s effort on 54 minutes threatened Ward’s goal, but it was always comfortably too high. A superb piece of skill from Bowman then saw City break the pressure, and Williams again proved the outlet to win the Grecians a corner that the home side did enough to deal with.
Matt Jay then came the closest to opening the scoring with a beautifully hit free-kick from just outside the box that hit the side-netting. It came following an excellent run in which Jay was pulled back by Harry Pell.
Colchester took the lead in the tie with a superb free-kick from Cohen Bramall, finding the top corner from a tight angle with 81 minutes on the clock. Bramall’s two free-kicks proved the only shots on target from either side in a closely-fought affair that gives Colchester a marginal edge ahead of the second leg at St James Park on Monday.
Colchester United: Gerken, Jackson, Bramall, Prosser, Senior (Gambin 67), Pell, Norris (Robinson 76), Eastman, Stevenson (Lapslie 77), Nouble, Poku (Cowan-Hall 88).
Subs not used: Ross, Sowunmi, Welch-Hayes, Clampin, Chilvers.
Exeter City: Ward, Sweeney, Atangana, A Martin, L Martin (Jay 38), Law (Collins 67), Williams, Bowman, Moxey (Parkes 77), Sparkes (Dickenson 77), Taylor ©.
Subs not used: Maxted, Fisher, Richardson, Randall, Seymour.