A superbly professional performance from Oxford United at St James' Park last night took them a massive step towards Wembley.

They returned to Oxford with a one-goal advantage from the away first leg of their play-off semi-final, and it was a lead they thoroughly deserved.

Jim Smith's men dominated the first half, and always created the better chances.

It was a display that was full of determination and character, and gives them a great opportunity to reach the final on May 20.

The goal itself came five minutes before half-time after some pinball wizardry.

From an inswinging right-wing corner by Andy Burgess, Matt Day headed against the bar. Martin Foster fired it back in and Wayne Carlisle headed away.

Then Danny Rose volleyed back in, the ball hit Chris Todd and went in off the chest of midfielder Andy Taylor, who could do little about it.

Although Rose understandably wanted to claim it, TV replays showed his effort wasn't going in, so it has to go down as an own goal.

There was a fantastic atmosphere inside a St James' Park that was packed to the rafters and a sea of red and yellow, three parts of the ground in red and white, and the away end full to the brim with United fans in fine voice.

Many of them, standing in front of an impressive backdrop of scores of giant flags, must have been nervous at the start, but they had no need to be because the U's made a great start.

Full of confidence from the first whistle, they penned City back in and around their penalty area for the first six minutes, and Chris Zebroski went close to opening the scoring.

Preferred to Rob Duffy in the starting line-up, Zebroski got in front of his marker and met Burgess's curling left-foot cross with a superb glancing header.

It looked to be going in but City keeper Martin Rice saved well to his right in the nick of time.

United had dominated play until then with Chris Hargreaves firing over and Zebroski almost on the end of a Martin Foster free-kick after Yemi Odubade had been unceremoniously floored by Rob Edwards.

Yet after surviving those early moments, Exeter created a good chance of their own, Wayne Carlisle flicking on a long throw and Adam Stansfield nodding it goalwards, but straight at Billy Turley from seven yards.

There was no denying Oxford's attacking ambitions, clearly demonstrated by Jim Smith's decision to use Burgess at left wingback instead of Gavin Johnson - and both wingbacks got forward well.

Encouragingly for Oxford, Burgess was very involved in the play and both Zebroski and Danny Rose, two of the younger players, had started the game well.

From an Exeter free-kick, Matt Day got in Turley's way and the keeper spilled it.

Matt Gill pounced on the loose ball but Hargreaves showed tremendous determination to get goalside of Gill and clear the danger.

Set-pieces, and in particular long throws, rehearsed on the training ground, were proving a major threat at both ends of the pitch.

Following one clever routine from the visitors, Rose saw a shot deflect over.

Zebroski was booked for a late challenge on Taylor and the ref wasn't interested in any punishment for the retaliation which followed.

United must have had 60 per cent of the possession so it was nothing less than they deserved when they took the lead in the 40th minute - even if the goal was like something seen more on a pinball machine.

And straight after the goal, Odubade had a great opportunity to exact even more misery on Exeter when Burgess put him clear. He shot as the keeper came out, but put it two yards wide of the near post.

Exeter made a double change at half-time, bringing on Jon Challinor and ex-Oxford defender Jon Richardson, and they came out with renewed vigour.

Seven minutes into the second half, Richard Logan headed Stansfield's cross into the side-netting with half the ground thinking it was in.

Attacking towards their own fans, Exeter looked to be more threatening as they committed three men up front in search of an equaliser to give them something to hang onto when they come to the Kassam Stadium on Tuesday.

But the strong visiting defence restricted them largely to long-range efforts, one 25-yard screamer from Billy Jones flashing just wide of Turley's left post.

But as the game opened up, Odubade began to thrive in the extra space when Oxford countered at pace.

Eddie Anaclet cut in from the right, but couldn't get any power behind his low left-footed shot.

A few minutes later, Odubade then shot narrowly past the far post after cutting in from the left.

Turley had not had a great deal to do but he came to the U's rescue with a superb one-handed save with his right hand from Stansfield, who was played in by Logan.

The keeper then goy up quickly to save a second shot from the striker a second later.

United piled on the pressure with further corners, when they again went close.

Jim Smith sent on Duffy for the game's last few throes and in the last minute he managed to head a Burgess free-kick across goal. Zebroski reached it with an outstretched left leg, but directed his far-post shot a yard wide.