Image: Wikimedia Commons / Rowan Massey - English Wikipedia
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Rowan Massey - English Wikipedia

League Two: Exeter City and Northampton Town set-up Wembley Play-Off final after comeback victories

Who knew that a game behind closed doors, played in a stadium where the noise of everyday traffic competed with the shouts of footballers, between two distinctly average football teams, could have such a heart-breaking effect? And yet, when 8:00pm approached, and the final whistle at St James’ Park blew, that was the overwhelming emotion that swept over me, a sorrowful Colchester United supporter.

The lack of football over the past few months was in some way compensated for when it was announced that somehow my team, after 4 years in League Two, had made it into the Play-Offs. Now, however, after a very sharp high and a dramatic fall, I must join the ranks of lower league fans waiting until September for proper, passionate football to begin again.

The hosts’ early goal completely bamboozled Colchester

Despite this, congratulations are in order for Exeter City and Northampton, who will go head-to-head at Wembley on 29 June, with both teams having shown fight to turn first-leg deficits on their heads to progress to the Play-Off final.

In Exeter, where the earlier of the two legs kicked off, Colchester’s lead was overturned within 10 minutes, with the centre-half Aaron Martin converting after a scramble in the Colchester penalty area, with the U’s struggling on three occasions to clear their lines.

The hosts’ early goal completely bamboozled Colchester, who – rather naively – had come to Exeter with the hope that they could sit back and defend their lead for 90 minutes. A switch to a more attacking outlook was, however, seemingly beyond the players, and it was Exeter who continued to attack, searching for a breakthrough whilst dominating possession.

Jonny Maxted saved well from Luke Norris’ flicked header 

A goal seemed likely, but the water-break at 22 minutes seemed to delay Exeter’s momentum. Colchester, who’s wing-play was their most dangerous weapon throughout the two legs, started to create chances. Jonny Maxted saved well from Luke Norris’ flicked header after Kwame Poku’s cross.

When the half-time whistle blew the game was perfectly set up for what was turning out to be the complete antithesis of the dour play that had been the feature of the first leg. It was Exeter who came out of the blocks fastest; after 58 minutes Jayden Richardson’s shot slipped under Dean Gerken, a horrific mistake which will surely haunt the 35-year old’s dreams for months to come.

Finally, however, Exeter’s second goal, which meant Colchester were behind in the tie, injected some desperation that led the travelling side to play some of the best football they have all season.

Colchester’s composure and skill on the ball belayed their division

Courtney Senior’s introduction from the bench, combined with the 18-year-old Poku’s constant trickery and threat, meant that every wave of Colchester attack seemed likely to result in a goal.

The ball, when passed along the ground, can be a rather useful object to possess, and Colchester’s composure and skill on the ball, for a moment, belayed their division. Colchester finally found a breakthrough with Senior finishing smartly after Cohen Bramall’s clipped cross caused havoc.

After Colchester’s opener, it seemed that there could be only one winner. The visitors had the perfect opportunity to seal victory in the 89th minute, as Kwame Poku was put through by Theo Robinson. Poku is probably not the man you would want in such a high-pressure situation, at only 18 years of age, and after a heavy first touch, he shot straight at Maxted in the Exeter goal.

Ryan Bowman raced through and hammered the final nail into the coffin

This was a miss that Colchester fans will be replaying on a loop in their heads for the next few months and exemplified the fine margins and twists of fate that can prove the difference between success and failure in football.

In a match where breaks in play proved decisive, the final whistle before extra-time deflated Colchester, who seemed to have expended most of their energy in their last surge for the finish line, and they returned to their distinctly average normal.

Exeter had the better chances before Ryan Bowman raced through and hammered the final nail into the coffin that contained all Colchester player’s and fan’s hopes and dreams. This defeat will take a lot of getting over for Colchester, with all the money they’ve spent on putting these games on, but, as always, we will go again next season. In the other semi-final, it was Northampton who were the miracle workers, scoring three goals against a beleaguered Cheltenham to go through.

You could say that Colchester floundered their shot at promotion

Cheltenham appeared shattered after their efforts in the first leg. Vadaine Oliver opened the scoring before Callum Morton scored twice, his first having gone in after unintentionally hitting him on the head, while his second was a result of a complete mix-up in the Cheltenham backline.

You could say that Colchester and Cheltenham have floundered their shot at promotion, that they had leads that they let slip as a result of nerves or buckling under pressure. Anyone watching any of these Play-Off games, however, could have proved that this was not the case.

None of the teams in these Play-Offs went down without a fight. Each side showed that they knew how much these games meant to their supporters. All four teams can be proud of putting on the games which epitomised the blood, guts and tears that makes League Two football what it is. Ultimately, it has underlined why we love it, and our uncommercialised, unfiltered local sides so much.

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