TOWN blew their big chance to go top on a night of torment at the Galpharm Stadium.
Peter Jackson's side wasted their first-half dominance and then handed Port Vale victory with some woeful defending.
On top of that, they finished with 10 men as David Mirfin marched for the second time in five matches before Tony Dinning added a penalty to Leon Constantine's gift-wrapped double.
By then, the stadium was emptying fast as many of Town's frozen supporters opted to thaw out rather than endure further disappointment at the hands of a team with the worst recent form in League I.
A run of just three points from 15, too, has left many of those loyal followers wondering if Town have what it takes to turn their early-season promise into a promotion run.
The question marks have grown bigger because the goals have dried up - just one in four matches - and confidence now seems as shaky as the team's passing.
Too many bright ideas are falling by the wayside around the opposition box thanks to one pass too many or a reluctance to have a pop at goal.It's a classic recipe for frustration and anxiety and last night's match was a classic example.
While Vale looked dangerous on the break in the first half and went close through speedy Chris Birchall - who will play for Trinidad and Tobago against England in the World Cup - it was Town who bossed the contest and who went closest to opening the scoring with Gary Taylor-Fletcher's header against the bar.
Fit-again Adnan Ahmed sent a searing shot just over, Nathan Clarke was a fraction off target with a good heading chance and there were umpteen other attempts as all seemed set fair for a productive second half.
Only 101 seconds had elapsed after the re-start, however, when the loping Constantine powered home a flick from Birchall's corner and Town were facing an uphill battle.
The harder they tried to chase the game, the more they looked exposed at the back and Rachubka made a brave save from the onrushing Sam Togwell to keep it 1-0 before Nathan Lowndes fired over an open goal in an amazing escape for Jackson's men.
Ahmed inspired hope of a Town equaliser with a rasping volley well saved from Andy Holdsworth's low cross, but calamity struck in the 65th minute.
Pushing right up to half way, Clarke's offside attempt failed to trap Constantine and, when he got to the box, he showed great composure to round Rachubka and score what proved to be the killer goal.
Vale kept it tight, often forcing Town to pass back to the keeper and even Rachubka was put under pressure, mis-kicking a few times as Town were made to look a shadow of the side which, just a month earlier, played Nottingham Forest off the pitch.
The substitutions of Taylor-Fletcher (right after the second goal) and later Ahmed did not go down well with sections of support who were glad to see them restored to a starting line-up which has faltered in recent weeks.
Holdsworth, on his 100th League appearance, got as much joy as anyone going forward, although Chris Brandon worked tirelessly and Jon Worthington crashed through a couple of excellent tackles as he led by example.
Danny Schofield's trickery appeared Town's most likely escape hatch, but that was firmly slammed shut 13 minutes from time.
Not for the first time in the match, Lowndes proved a thorn in Town's side as he broke a tackle and headed to the box with Mirfin in hot pursuit.
The burly centre-back looked to play the ball first as he lunged from behind, but Lowndes went tumbling and finished well inside the box.
The initial contact seemed to be outside, but there was little doubt Mirfin would march for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity and that's exactly what happened.
It was a sickening episode, although Town's night could have got worse had Rachubka not saved a close-range header from Michael Cummins just two minutes from time.
Definitely a match to forget.
Goalkeeper Paul Rachubka insists the `Chelsea factor' is not affecting Town.
Peter Jackson's side have picked up just three points from 15 since they were paired with the London giants in the FA Cup.
"Chelsea is not a distraction at all," said the former Charlton man.
"A game like that is something to be looked forward to.
"But the manager and his staff are preparing us properly for every game and thoughts of Chelsea don't come into it.
"I know when we went out against Port Vale we were focused on them and their XI against our XI and we didn't beat them, which is very disappointing.
"When we go out against Barnsley we will be fully focused on them and when it's Gillingham here on Monday it will be the same case.
"When we are on the training ground it's 100% thinking about the next game and nothing else.
"The only time we get distracted by the Chelsea game is when we are doing interviews after games or during the week when the media are asking about it."
Rachubka added: "Getting the first goal at this level is so important. We didn't do it against Port Vale and, in recent matches, we've been making life difficult for ourselves by not taking our chances."
Goodlad; Rowland, James, Fortune, Pilkington; Birchall, Togwell, Dinning (Sonner 86), Innes (Cummins 81); Lowndes (Husbands 81), Constantine.
Subs not used: Brain, Matthews.
Paul Rachubka Made some smart and brave stops despite the scoreline. Clearances mixed, but not helped by standard of backpasses Rating: 4/10
Andy Holdsworth Hardly the way he would have wanted to celebrate his 100th League game but at least he was Town's best performer Rating: 6/10
Danny Adams Put in one or two decent crosses, even when Town were chasing the game in the second half Rating: 4/10
David Mirfin Got a straight red when conceding the penalty, even though many felt he played the ball and it was outside the area Rating: 4/10
Nathan Clarke Did his best to spark Town by pushing on but left gaps at the back. Close with a great chance in the first half Rating: 4/10
Danny Schofield Looked as likely as anyone to force a goal in the first half but he eventually faded right out of the game Rating: 4/10
Jon Worthington Piled into a couple of crunching tackles to try and spur his mates and had a couple of pops at goal without any luck Rating: 5/10
Adnan Ahmed Went as close as any Town player to scoring with a cracking volley tipped over the top in his first start of the season Rating: 4/10
Chris Brandon Saw quite a lot of the ball out wide and was involved in a lot of promising build-up but couldn't break through Rating: 5/10
Andy Booth Worked hard but failed to find a successful final pass. Made one great break and low left foot cross, but all in vain Rating: 4/10
Gary T-Fletcher His substitution did not go down well with the fans. Lively in the first half when he hit the bar with a back header Rating: 4/10
Andy Woolmer had a good game overall, although there was much debate about whether red-card victim David Mirfin played the ball first and whether the penalty challenge was actually outside the area. Quick around the pitch, he was on the spot to make his decisions and never let the game get out of hand. Marshalled it soundly.
Andy Holdsworth -
Did some good work in both attack and defence, linking well with Schofield and Brandon on the break and providing decent crosses. Also took some heavy stick from Vale's defence
It came in the 20th minute when, with Town well on top despite some quick breaks from Vale,Gary Taylor-Fletcher hit the bar with a back header from Nathan Clarke's raking free-kick. Had that gone in, Town would almost certainly have gone on to win the game, but they couldn't break through and Vale took advantage