Eastbourne Borough's FA Cup hopes and plans totally dissolved on Saturday in deepest Essex, where catastrophic defending conceded seven goals against National League Braintree Town.
Talk about the drama of the FA Cup. If football is live theatre, this was comic opera with a surprise plot. Borough had travelled north across the Thames in hope of making club history - to reach the second round of the FA Cup for the first time. Instead, they returned with an unwelcome piece of club history - the heaviest defeat since a wet October 2000 night at Worcester City when, as Langney Sports, they were bundled out of the Cup by an identical 0-7 scoreline.
One of the joys of all sport is its capacity for the unexpected. But the Borough squad and their 150 travelling supporters will have felt far from joyful on the trek home. After an excellent run which saw the club through three qualifying rounds, a close game and an even chance had been the general expectation, but Braintree Town kicked all those predictions into touch.
Fans after the game were massively disappointed, and some were caustic. They are rightly passionate about their club, and the Facebook generation can nowadays vent frustrations more publicly than ever before. But the manager and his players will look to put things right on the pitch, and not on the keyboard.
And once emotions have cooled, this result demands a more measured view. Eastbourne did play well for long spells of the game, but their defending had been awful, and barnstorming Braintree gave them no mercy, punishing just about every error. Other than the seven goals, the home side had just two or three real scoring chances, and it was the 88th minute before they scored a goal from an open-play move. But their set-pieces destroyed the Sports.
After the triumph at Aldershot, Tommy had set up with a similar, though not identical, team shape. Stone, Khinda-John and O'Reilly formed the centre-back trio, but significantly the commanding figure of Ian Simpemba was missing - and missed. The suspended Borough skipper could only watch in frustration as defensive errors handed the Iron early goals.
Going forward, Taylor, Romain and McCallum all emerged with some credit, Hughes and Dutton were always in the thick of the midfield battle, and Hare and Smith fitfully gave width. But you don't drive the truck with the back doors open, and the whole team must share that responsibility.
Ironically, Borough began the game really brightly with Gavin McCallum winning an early free-kick, cleared by a scrambling home defence. Then Elliott Romain ended a searing run from the centre-circle with a 20-yard shot just wide of the left post. Two decent moves, and not a hint of what was to come....
On six minutes referee Stephen Ross awarded the Iron a needless free-kick, right on half-way, for an irrelevant Romain offside, and it was launched forward and switched across the goalmouth for Michael Cheek's header, athletically saved by Carey but poked in on the rebound by Monty Patterson.
Six minutes later George Olokobi doubled the lead from a corner, and Eastbourne look shaken but also stirred. The Iron had to concede five spoiling fouls in the first fifteen minutes, as the visitors looked for a route back. Jamie Taylor nicked the ball away from a hesitant Sam Beasant but the home defence scrambled to their keeper's rescue, and then McCallum hit a promising shot off-target.
But their efforts were undermined when a bizarre free-kick on 21 minutes - possibly mishit but still ineptly defended - put the Iron three goals up. The Sports might as well have been running up a down escalator.
Bizarrely, it was to become not a game of two halves, but of four quarters. The scoreline remained at 3-0 for the rest of the first half and for the first 25 minutes after the interval - in other words for half of the match. Michael Cheek had one decent chance to extend the lead but stumbled as he burst into the box, but otherwise the clearer openings were falling to Borough.
O'Reilly beat the home defence with a long drifting cross but McCallum could not quite meet it at the far post. Mark Hughes was furious with himself for heading wide from a corner, and Romain - who was taking quite a buffetting from the home defence - was clumsily sandwiched on the edge of the area, but Smith's free-kick was headed just too high by Taylor.
Three down at the break, Eastbourne came out with an admirable front-foot mentality. McCallum was shredding the right side of the Braintree defence, one cynical foul on him earning Sean Clohessy a yellow card, but from the free-kick Smith skied his shot too high. Taylor, Romain and McCallum himself had further efforts on goal, and Borough supporters were starting to wonder whether an impossible fight-back might even be feasible.
But that was as good as it got, for the final quarter of the game saw Borough cave in. On 69 minutes Beasant's huge punt upfield was hopelessly dealt with, to gift Braintree a quite embarrassing fourth goal. Then six minutes later a clumsy tackle conceded a penalty for 5-0.
In the closing minutes Elokobi completed the rarity of a centre-back's hat-trick, and then Akinola whipped a low drive across Carey for the coup de grace. Mr Ross's final whistle actually came a few seconds early - but not a moment too soon for a beaten and bewildered Borough.
Borough: Carey; Hare, Stone, Khinda-John, O'Reilly, Smith; Hughes (Baptista 67), Dutton (Tate 83); Taylor (Pinney 59), McCallum, Romain. Unused subs: Worrall, Street, Horlock.
Referee: Stephen Ross Att: 645
Borough MoM: Elliott Romain - relentless running even in defeat
Tommy Widdrington said: "It was a strange game. We actually started really well, but you can't hide the fact that we simply didn't defend our box well enough, and that's not one individual but a whole group of players. We knew what was coming, but perhaps our young lads couldn't handle their strength and power.
"Then for 25 minutes of the second half it looked like we were going to bring the game back to life. We just couldn't get the ball over the line, and then the fourth goal is the end of the game.
"But we took the plaudits when we won at Aldershot together, and now we'll have the humility to take this tanning together, and we will make sure that it doesn't happen again."
THE SEVEN DEADLY STRIKES
6 mins: long free-kick knocked back across goal - Carey one-handed save from Cheek header but Monty Patterson knocks in rebound 1-0.
12 mins: George Elokobi evades marking, meets corner and his header loops in just under the crossbar 2-0.
21 mins: Oli Muldoon's skimming free-kick is clearing the far post until Olokobi's toe nudges it in 3-0.
69mins: enormous punt from keeper Beasant bounces between O'Reilly and Carey. Akinola's diagonal strike hits back post and Lee Barnard pops in the rebound 4-0.
73 mins: Akinola tumbles over O'Reilly's outstretched challenge and Barnard buries the penalty kick just beyond Carey's right hand 5-0.
83 mins: another left-wing corner, another Elokobi header, this time dipping low to find the net 6-0.
88 mins: slick move sets up Akinola shot across Carey from edge of box and earns the only Braintree goal from an open-play move 7-0.