Ryan Bowman’s extra-time winner saw Exeter City make a third League Two play-off final in four years as they beat Colchester United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals.
The Grecians forward beat the offside trap to run through and score left-footed in the 111th minute to clinch victory in an entertaining second leg.
Exeter trailed 1-0 from the first leg but started the game well and went ahead early as Aaron Martin fired in from 15 yards after Alex Fisher’s shot had been blocked.
The hosts took an aggregate lead when Jayden Richardson’s weak second-half shot squirmed under Dean Gerken, but the U’s finished the 90 minutes strongly and brought the tie level after Courtney Senior side-footed home from seven yards.
Exeter will face either Cheltenham Town or Northampton Town in the play-off final on Monday, 29 June at Wembley.
Having not registered a shot on target in a drab first leg, Exeter began the return fixture at an empty St James Park much better.
Fisher, one of four changes made by manager Matt Taylor, impressed early on as the hosts tested the Colchester defence with some teasing crosses before and after Martin’s opener.
Exeter’s danger man Randall Williams, who was subdued on Friday, had three good efforts to double the lead before the break. He forced Gerken into a good save with a curling free-kick, headed a Dean Moxey cross over and curled a stoppage-time effort just wide after a good counter-attack.
At the other end Luke Gambin blasted over from 25 yards before Luke Norris had a flicked header palmed away by Jonny Maxted with Colchester’s best effort.
Gerken gets in a pickle as U’s lose out
Pierce Sweeney should have doubled the lead 10 minutes after the break when he was found unmarked at the far post, but his close-range header was well over.
But City only had to wait a minute or so to take the lead as Nottingham Forest loanee Richardson was gifted his second senior goal by Gerken’s mistake after good build-up work from Nicky Law saw Bowman hit the post with a header.
Colchester had their best period in the final 20 minutes of normal time as Senior made it 2-2 on aggregate when he reacted instinctively after Maxted had weakly palmed away Cohen Bramall’s cross into his path.
The U’s should have been celebrating going through without extra time – Kwame Poku found himself one-on-one with Maxted but the teenage attacker could not beat Exeter’s keeper as the Grecians seemed to run out of steam.
Extra time saw few chances. Bowman and substitute Nigel Atangana both missing the target for Exeter in a tame first additional 15 minutes.
But Bowman’s goal saw the Grecians become the first team to overturn a first-leg deficit to make a Wembley final since Bradford City in 2013.
Archie Collins strongly held off a challenge in the centre circle to play a well-weighted through-ball and Bowman perfectly timed his run to beat the offside trap before shooting across Gerken into the bottom corner with his weaker left foot.
Can Exeter make it third time lucky?
It was the third time in four years that Exeter had won a home second leg to reach the League two play-off final, but the first time they had overturned a first-leg deficit to do so.
They knocked out Carlisle United in 2017 and Lincoln City 12 months later having drawn the first legs away from home.
Having got to Wembley the Grecians stumbled at the final hurdle on both occasions – a 2-1 loss to Blackpool three years ago was followed by a 3-1 defeat to Coventry City.
This will be manager Matt Taylor’s first experience of a Wembley final in charge of a side, but the 38-year-old is no stranger to north London having helped Exeter win the 2008 Conference play-off final as a central defender.
And the omens could be good for City. The last time a Devon side beat Colchester in the play-offs were their big rivals Plymouth Argyle in 1996. The Pilgrims lost the first leg 1-0 at Layer Road before winning 3-2 on aggregate and going on to beat Darlington 1-0 at Wembley to move up to what is now League One.