COLCHESTER United’s promotion hopes were cruelly dashed in extra-time following a hard-fought play-off semi-final second leg at Exeter City.

The U’s, who had led 1-0 from the first leg, were beaten 3-1 at St James Park to lose 3-2 on aggregate.

U’s boss John McGreal made one change for their crucial second leg at Exeter. Luke Gambin was recalled in place of Courtney Senior, who dropped to the bench.

In contrast, Exeter boss Matt Taylor made four changes to his side, as they looked to overturn their one-goal deficit from the first leg.

Colchester started on the defensive, with Tom Eastman making a crucial second-minute header to deny Alex Fisher in the six-yard box.

Indeed, it was not long before Exeter levelled the play-off up on aggregate.

Aaron Martin lashed in from just inside the area in the tenth minute after keeper Dean Gerken had initially made an excellent save to deny Fisher, after the U's had initially failed to clear a free-kick into the box.

It was a blow for Colchester, who saw their slender advantage erased so early in the second leg.

The hosts were more competitive that they had been in the first leg and their danger man Randell Williams enjoying plenty of joy down the right.

But Colchester gradually adapted and just before the midway point in the first half, Ryan Jackson was sent through in space by Kwame Poku and delivered a low cross that keeper Jonny Moxey that could only parry but Luke Norris was not near enough to capitalize.

Exeter continued to threaten and Williams’ free-kick was pushed away well at his near post by U’s keeper Dean Gerken.

Gambin's rising shot from 25 yards flew over the bar for Colchester on the half hour, after Exeter had failed to properly clear a free-kick.

The Grecians enjoyed the most possession in the first half.

But the U's improved in the latter stages of the first half and came close to an equaliser, six minutes before half-time when Maxted denied Norris's header from point-blank range, after Ryan Jackson had curled a dangerous cross into the box.

Colchester went in trailing at the break on the night with the score level on aggregate and they could have gone behind overall ten minutes after half-time when Exeter defender Pierce Sweeney inexplicably headed wide unmarked from Nicky Law's deep corner.

Exeter did take the lead overall though when Jayden Richardson’s low shot squirmed under Gerken’s body and rolled in, seconds after Ryan Bowman’s header had come back off a post.

Gerken parried Williams’ fierce effort but Colchester were back on level terms overall with 12 minutes to go when substitute Courtney Senior lashed home a precious goal from close range, after keeper Maxted had palmed away Cohen Bramall’s looped cross.

And the U’s had a glorious chance to book a Wembley spot in the 90th minute when substitute Theo Robinson sent Poku through on goal but the youngster was denied brilliantly by Maxted.

It was a huge moment and one that meant extra-time was required, where there was once again little to choose between the sides.

Substitute Nigel Atangana’s long-range strike flew wide for Exeter in the first period but Colchester fell 3-2 behind overall in the 110th minute when Bowman raced onto Archie Collins’ through pass and slotted low past Gerken for his 15th goal of the season, to end U’s hopes of reaching Wembley.

COLCHESTER UNITED: Gerken, Jackson (sub Welch-Hayes, 99), Eastman, Prosser, Bramall, Pell, Stevenson (sub Lapslie, 99), Nouble, Poku (sub Cowan-Hall, 118), Gambin (sub Senior, 56), Norris (Robinson, 71).

Subs (not used): Sowunmi, Clampin, Chilvers, Ross.

Exeter City: Maxted, Sweeney, Martin, Law (sub Dickenson, 93), Williams, Bowman, Fisher (sub Seymour, 75), Richardson, Moxey (sub Parkes, 93), Taylor (sub Atangana, 82), Collins.

Substitutes (not used): Sparkes, Jay, Randall, Ajose.

U’s man of the match: Frank Nouble.

U’s goals: Senior (78).

Exeter goals: Martin (10), Richardson (58), Bowman (110).

Colchester bookings: Bramall (unsporting behaviour, 23), Eastman (unsporting behaviour, 119).

Exeter bookings: Bowman (foul, 39).

Referee: Charles Breakspear.