COHEN Bramall’s late free-kick gave Colchester United a 1-0 victory and the edge in their League Two play-off semi-final after a cagey first leg against Exeter City.

Left-back Bramall curled in a free-kick from the right edge of the area that Grecians goalkeeper Lewis Ward could only push into the net at his near post, ensuring the U’s take a slender advantage to St James Park for the second leg next Monday.

Colchester boss John McGreal started three of the players who were told in April that they would not be retained, once their contracts expired this summer.

Skipper Luke Prosser, Frank Nouble and Ryan Jackson all featured in the starting line-up but the surprise news was that there was no Callum Harriott in the starting line-up.

McGreal also opted to pick Luke Norris in attack ahead of leading scorer Theo Robinson, who was on the bench, with Nouble playing in a central forward role.

Colchester’s first-ever competitive game behind closed doors – and their first game since March 7 – started quietly, with little in the way of attacking threat for either side in the opening stages.

That was perhaps quite understandable, given the surreal atmosphere and the sheer importance of the occasion.

Aaron Martin’s header from a corner dipped over the bar from a corner in the opening minutes for Exeter.

But it took until just before the midway point in the first half for either side to register a first effort on target.

After Luke Norris had been fouled 25 yards from goal, Cohen Bramall's curled free-kick was pushed over the bar by keeper Lewis Ward.

Harry Pell did well to stop Nicky Law’s low shot in the area from close range at the other end soon after, as both sides warmed to the task in the early evening sunshine.

Exeter were forced into a change when Lee Martin limped off and was replaced by Matt Jay but the first half finished goal-less and it was a similar scenario, after half-time.

Colchester did come close to scoring when Courtney Senior's powerful effort from the edge of the area flashed just wide of the near post.

But back came Exeter and the visitors almost took the lead on the hour mark when substitute Jay's free-kick from 20 yards skimmed the side netting of the near post, after he had originally been fouled by Harry Pell.

Both sides made changes midway through the second half in a bid to try and make a breakthrough, with Luke Gambin sent on for Senior for Colchester and Archie Collins given the nod for Exeter, for Law.

Gambin immediately made a difference for the hosts and Frank Nouble's powerful shot forced Ward to make a save at his near post after a swift Colchester break, with 15 minutes to go.

And the U’s made their breakthrough with nine minutes remaining when Bramall scored with a free-kick, to gain a slender advantage ahead of their trip down to Devon next Monday.

COLCHESTER UNITED: Gerken, Jackson, Eastman, Prosser, Bramall, Pell, Stevenson (sub Lapslie, 78), Nouble, Poku (sub Cowan-Hall, 89), Senior (sub Gambin, 67), Norris (sub Robinson, 77).

Substitutes (not used): Sowunmi, Welch-Hayes, Clampin, Chilvers, Ross.

Exeter City: Ward, Sweeney, Atangana, Martin (sub Jay, 38), Law (sub Collins, 67), Williams, Bowman, Moxey (sub Dickenson, 78), Sparkes (sub Parkes, 78), Taylor.

Substitutes (not used): Maxted, Fisher, Richardson, Randall, Seymour.

U’s man of the match: Tom Eastman.

U’s goals: Bramall (81).

Exeter goals: None.

Colchester bookings: Pell (foul, 58).

Exeter bookings: Law (foul, 45).

Referee: Joshua Smith.