When the wheels come off all but the best teams, the result is usually football's equivalent of a spectacular crash and that is what happened as Torquay United were sent tumbling down the embankment by Southend United at Plainmoor.
Paul Sturrock's Shrimpers, big and strong and no-nonsense at the back, inflicted a 4-1 defeat, the sort which may prompt a fair old rethink for Torquay manager Martin Ling and his coaching staff.CLICK FOR A FULL GALLERY OF PICTURES FROM SATURDAY'S MATCH
The Gulls had hung on for an unconvincing draw at Oxford United the previous weekend without leading scorer Rene Howe. They had him back this time, but gave him so little support that he must have felt at times like a voter at last week's police commissioner elections.
Having done a job, physically and tactically, on Howe, Southend were too quick and too alert in attack, strikers Gavin Tomlin and Britt Assombalonga helping themselves to two goals apiece.
Torquay had hauled themselves back from 3-0 down to beat Aldershot Town 4-3 last month, but there was no way back when Tomlin made it 4-0 after only 46 minutes on Saturday, and that was not the end of the damage.
A few minutes after substitute Ryan Jarvis pulled a goal back, midfielder Lee Mansell got a frustrated tackle on Assombalonga about as wrong as he could and was sent off. The straight red card will see United's captain suspended for games away at York City and Bradford City, and at home to Dagenham and Redbridge.
It took Southend only ten minutes to open the scoring, former Torquay loanee Tomlin taking a pass from Tamika Mkandawire before beating Kevin Nicholson in the area as he cut back on his left foot and then driving an angled shot under Martin Rice.
Sturrock admitted later that his tactical priority had been to stop Howe. Torquay's centre-forward was always up against two big centre-backs in Ryan Creswell and Mark Phillips, but just as important was Sturrock's decision to post Millwall loanee Mkandawire just in front of his back four.
It meant that Howe was effectively surrounded, cutting off much of United's on-ground supply line to him and forcing them to go to him in the air – just what Southend wanted.
The Gulls also had a visible lack of pace in midfield and attack, which allowed Chris Barker, the steady but not exactly pacy former Plymouth Argyle defender, to get away with at least 45 minutes at left-back without being exposed, until United sent on winger Niall Thompson at the start of the second half. By then Southend were 3-0 up.
It took Torquay 33 minutes to force a first save from Paul Smith, a comfortable one from Damon Lathrope, before three goals in seven minutes before and just after the interval effectively ended the contest.
After 39 minutes Southend counter-attacked from a Nicholson long throw into their own area, Tomlin eventually setting up Assombalonga, on loan from Watford, to score from just inside the area, in off the retreating Joe Oastler.
On the stroke of half-time Kevan Hurst delivered a telling long cross from Southend's right and Assombalonga headed in at the far-post.
Things were clearly so wrong that Ling made a double substitution at the interval. He took off midfielders Craig Easton and Lathrope, sent on Thompson and Jarvis, and went to 4-4-2.
However, the changes never had a chance to take effect, because in the 46th minute a misdirected header by Mansell allowed Michael Timlin to send in Tomlin to chase after a through ball.
Aaron Downes thought Rice was coming to clear, but United's goalkeeper never got there, Tomlin beat him and then the retreating Downes near goal before rolling the ball into the empty net.
Assombalonga also had a headed goal disallowed for offside before United raised something of a cheer at last in the 52nd minute.
Thompson, fed by Howe on the right, crossed early and Jarvis nipped in to score with a first-time shot from close range. It was his fourth goal of the season.
A few Torquay fans might have been clinging to the hope of an Aldershot-style miracle, but in the 57th minute even that unlikely possibility was snuffed out.
Mansell launched himself into a lunging tackle on Assombalonga, missed the ball completely and dumped the man instead. Referee Andy Davies had little option and even less hesitation in sending Mansell off.
The game was up for the Gulls, and they might have lost more heavily in the end.
Brian Saah, who played better than most, was fortunate to get away with a free-kick for a foul on Assombalonga which looked just inside the box, while Jarvis headed off his own line from Phillips near the end.
Having seen their team's unbeaten home record ended, United fans gave generous applause to both Tomlin and Assombalonga when Sturrock took them off, and rightly so.