A left-footed strike from Ryan Bowman in extra time sent Exeter City to Wembley after a manic second-leg at St James Park.
Aaron Martin and Jayden Richardson had taken City 2-1 up on aggregate, before a goal from Courtney Senior sent the match to extra time, before Ryan’s strike ultimately won the game for the Grecians.
City boss Matt Taylor made four changes to the side that started the first leg in Essex, with Jonny Maxted, Alex Fisher, Jayden Richardson and Archie Collins all starting the game.
Lewis Ward, Jack Sparkes and Nigel Atangana all returned to the bench, while Lee Martin’s injury sustained in the first leg kept him out of the squad.
City started well and were level in the tie after just 10 minutes as Aaron Martin converted following blocks from efforts by Alex Fisher and Jake Taylor.
The City defender had a lot to do from inside the box, but finished well to level the tie early on. It was a bright start from City and they were unlucky not to create a chance to go ahead after 19 minutes when Fisher’s header narrowly evaded the onrushing Ryan Bowman, although the Colchester defence were able to deal with the danger.
A free-kick conceded by Cohen Bramall on the edge of the Colchester box presented a shooting opportunity for Randell Williams, and he forced a terrific save out of Dean Gerken with 23 minutes on the clock with an effort aiming for the goalkeeper’s top left corner.
Maxted was then called upon to make a fine save on 40 minutes as Norris flicked a header goalward, but the Grecian goalkeeper got two strong fists to the ball to punch it away. City had flown out of the blocks so it was unsurprising to see Colchester grow into the game as the half went on.
Just before half-time, Law released Williams on the counter and City were within inches of a second goal, as Williams’ effort curled agonisingly wide of Gerken’s goal in the last meaningful act of the half.
Williams was influential again the second half, finding a pass inside to Taylor in City’s first attacking move of the second period, though City’s captain overhit the cross and the visitors cleared. Pierce Sweeney was the next to come close with a free header from a set-piece after 57 minutes, but the Irishman didn’t time the header and the ball flew well over.
But City would lead the tie soon after as Ryan Bowman’s initial header from Law’s cross hit the post, before the ball spilled for Jayden Richardson – whose effort beat Dean Gerken and rolled into the Colchester goal. It was Jayden’s second ever senior goal.
The visitors responded with attacking pressure, and Maxted was forced to tip a cross from deep over his own bar with 65 minutes played in what was Colchester’s best spell of the game so far, though the City backline stood firm and were able to clear the danger.
Colchester levelled the tie after 78 minutes as Maxted could only clear a Cohen Bramall cross into the path of Courtney Senior, who converted from close range.
Jonny Maxted then produced a huge moment in the tie as Robinson fed Poku one-v-one in the 89th minute, but the City goalkeeper produced a huge save to keep the tie level.
A late cross from Randell Williams was the last act of the 90 minutes, with the City man overhitting his ball in following a short corner, meaning the tie went to extra-time.
A cross delivered by substitute Brennan Dickenson towards Bowman proved too much for the Grecian striker to convert, such was the pace on the ball, as the first half of extra time settled into a rhythm. Atangana tried his luck with 102 minutes on the clock with a fierce shot from outside the area, but it was wide of Gerken’s right-hand post.
The game changed again when Ryan Bowman broke in the 110th minute of play having been released following a superb run from Archie Collins and put Exeter back in front with a superb left-footed strike low beyond Gerken.
The Grecians task then became simple, to play out the remaining 8 minutes without conceding. Some excellent possession in the final third helped kill some of the nerves, before a huge tackle from Tom Parkes led to City breaking at a vital time. He released Williams down the right in injury time, who was able to kill more valuable seconds before the referee blew for full-time – and sent Exeter to Wembley.
Exeter City: Maxted, Sweeney, A Martin, Law (Dickenson 93), Williams, Bowman, Fisher (Seymour 75), Richardson , Moxey (Parkes 93), Taylor, (Atangana 82), Collins.
Subs not used: Ward, Sparkes, Jay, Randall, Ajose, Seymour.
Colchester United: Gerken, Jackson (Welch-Hayes 99), Bramall, Prosser ©, Pell, Norris (Robinson 71), Eastman, Stevenson (Lapslie 99), Gambin (Senior 57), Poku (Cowan-Hall 119), Nouble.
Subs not used: Ross, Sowunmi, Clampin, Chilvers.
Booked: Bramall, Eastman