Ten-man MK Dons left Colchester feeling more than a little hard done by as the U's fired themselves back into automatic promotion contention.
Paul Ince's visitors were denied the point they needed to climb back into the League 1 play-off spots as goals from Kevin Lisbie and David Prutton sent them to their first league defeat of 2010. But it was the controversial sending off of substitute Jude Stirling early in the second half that was pivotal in securing three points for Aidy Boothroyd's hosts.
Trailing to Lisbie's first-half opener, the Dons saw the foundations of a promising start to the second half pulled from under them by ref Simon Hooper when Stirling, on to replace the injured Mathias Doumbe, was harshly judged to have fouled Lisbie in a penalty-box scramble. Hope flickered briefly for the men from MK when Willy Gueret superbly saved Lisbie's resulting spot-kick, but Prutton's long range special, coming just two minutes after his introduction, gave the U's the breathing space they needed.
Forced into benching the battle-weary Jermaine Easter, Jason Puncheon and Peter Leven due to the demands of four games in 10 days, it was a Dons side lacking its four leading scorers that took to the field in freezing north Essex. But lone striker Aaron Wilbraham looked keen to bridge the gap early-on - arguably shoved over in the box by Matt Heath and drilling just wide with a 20-yarder after 13 minutes.
But while the Dons struggled to adapt to a pudding pitch that restricted their passing game, Colchester's direct approach didn't encounter the same problem and they were in front in 18 minutes. The latest in a series of Marc Tierney throws came hurtling in from the left flank and when Gueret, stretching to climb above towering former Don Clive Platt, was unable to hang onto the ball, Lisbie did the necessary. It kicked off a dangerous spell of home pressure the Dons, and Gueret in particular, did well to resist.
Undeterred by his early mistake, the Frenchman kept the Dons in contention by smothering an Anthony Wordsworth free-kick at the second attempt, denying Lisbie from a tight angle after a Doumbe mistake down the right and punching clear under intense pressure from Platt under his own crossbar. But as the visitors started to string their passes together they began to create chances. Mark Carrington, making his first league start since August, should have taken the best of them - ducking under a Danny Woodards cross on 27 minutes when he looked certain to head for goal.
Youngsters Mark Randall and Andros Townsend combined well to force a hurried clearance from Christian Riberio, before Randall's pass present Luke Chadwick with a sight of goal that went unconverted. Buoyed by his success late in the first half, Randall made more inroads early in the second but shot straight at Ben Williams from 18 yards. From Colchester's next attack came the game's decisive moment. Sub John White hurled a long throw in from the right, Platt and John-Joe O'Toole fought in turn to head it into the mix and, as the ball dropped six yards out, Lisbie seemed to be backing into Stirling more than he was being wrestled.
Referee Simon Hooper saw it a different way and jabbed a finger at the spot before compounding the error with a red card for the Dons defender. With heads spinning all around him, Gueret deserves considerable credit for blocking Lisbie's spot-kick low to his right, but the challenge for his team had become a mighty one.
Ince called for Puncheon's ball-playing abilities at this point, but it was a Colchester sub that would strike the next blow. And what a blow. Prutton only joined the U's on loan from Leeds on the morning of the game, but he took no time to settle in as he stepped onto his right foot 30 yards out before violently crashing the ball into Gueret's top corner to give the Frenchman no chance.
Ince's men, to their credit, refused to raise the white flag and Townsend twice delivered dangerous balls into the box that his short-handed team-mates were unable to convert, while Sam Baldock, on to replace Chadwick, rattled the frame of the goal with a fierce drive nine minutes from time. Even an obvious shirt-pull by Magnus Okuonghae, denying Townsend a clear run on goal, was missed by the officials. The Dons will argue it wasn't the first one to go against them.
Colchester United (4-4-2): Williams; Ribeiro (White 44), Okuonghae (c), Heath, Tierney; Ifil (Prutton 65), Izzet, O'Toole, Wordsworth; Lisbie (Gillespie 85), Platt.
Subs not used: Cousins, Elito, Batth, Odejayi.
Goals: Lisbie 18, Prutton 67
Booked: Prutton MK Dons (4-5-1): Gueret; Woodards, Doumbe (Stirling 46), McCracken, Lewington (c); Townsend, Gleeson, Randall (Puncheon 63), Carrington (Baldock 71), Chadwick; Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Easter, Gobern, Leven, Darren Powell.
Booked: Randall, Gleeson, Lewington, Woodards
Sent off: Stirling 54
Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire)