Reds’ Carabao Cup run is over after Colchester came from behind to win the fourth-round clash at The People’s Pension Stadium.
Our hopes of a quarter-final were effectively alive for just two minutes.
Dannie Bulman marked his return after injury with a stunning strike from 25 yards to give the home side a 20th-minute lead.
But Luke Norris levelled almost immediately with a header and Colchester then took control. They went ahead in fortunate fashion early in the second half when Cohen Bramall’s free kick hit the underside of the bar and bounced in off Michael Luyambula’s back.
Reds huffed and puffed in search of an equaliser but their dreams ended when substitute Luke Gambin turned and lashed the ball into the roof of the net with 14 minutes to go. In truth, Colchester were deserved winners.
Gabriele Cioffi was able to welcome back Bez Lubala after suspension and Dannie Bulman after injury. There was a recall for Tarryn Allarakhia while Michael Luyambula took over in goal. Ashley Nadesan, Ashley Nathaniel-George, Panutche Camara and Glenn Morris dropped to the bench.
Reds make a good start, forcing a couple of early corners as they took the game to Colchester without testing goalkeeper Dean Gerken.
The visitors offered little attacking threat in the early stages, but the game was certainly competitive with neither side given any time to enjoy any prolonged spells of possession.
But then the contest exploded into life with two goals in less than two minutes.
Reds took the lead with a spectacular goal by Bulman in the 20th minute. The midfielder led a three-man break and when he got possession again the 40-year-old smashed an unstoppable right-foot shot into the top right-hand corner with Dean Gerken helpless in the Colchester goal.
But within two minutes it was 1-1. Franck Nouble met Ryan Jackson’s cross-field ball with a cross into the danger area and Norris got ahead of his marker to head firmly past Michael Luyambula.
The goal rocked Reds and Norris nearly scored again in the 27th minute, flicking the ball onto the top of the bar after Nouble had headed the ball back across goal.
Reds regrouped but they were struggling to create much and Luyambula made a comfortable save on 38 minutes from Stevenson’s 25-yarder.
Nouble was proving a real nuisance and he cleverly held up the ball for the overlapping Cohen Bramall whose first-time effort was gathered at his near post by Luyambula.
Colchester began the second half on the front foot. Norris was the first to threaten, turning some distance out and forcing Luyambula to make a save. Bramall then made a barnstorming run from left-back, helped by Jordan Tunicliffe’s slip and his low drive skidded a yard wide of the far post, but the defender didn’t have to wait long for his moment of glory.
Tom Dallison clipped Norris 22 yards out in a central position and Bramall’s 54th minute free kick hit the underside of the bar and bounced in off the back of Luyambula – really bad luck for the Reds’ keeper. Cioffi reacted by immediately bringing on Palmer for Mason Bloomfield.
Colchester squandered a great chance on 62 minutes when Prosser played Courtney Senior in space on the right, but he skied his shot with only Luyambula to beat but at that stage the visitors were firmly in control with Reds struggling to find any attacking cohesion.
Lewis Young replaced Sesay midway through the second half and Crawley finally threatened in the 69th minute when Palmer met Doherty’s corner with a glancing header which was cleared away in front of goal by Bramall.
But Colchester put the tie to bed with 77 minutes played. They broke swiftly and the ball ended up at the feet of former Crawley loanee Gambin, who turned inside and lashed a powerful shot into the roof of the net. Sub Tom Lapslie was denied a late goal by a good save from Luyambula.
There was no way back for Crawley on a night of crushing anti-climax.
Reds: Luyambula; Sesay (Young 67), Tunnicliffe, Dallison, Doherty; Bulman; Grego-Cox, Ferguson, Allarakhia (Nadesan 81), Lubala; Bloomfield (Palmer 55).
Attendance: 5612 (1791 Colchester)
Photo: A smacker for Dannie Bulman from Tom Dallison after the midfielder put Reds ahead.