Arsenal drew level on points with Liverpool at the top of the Premiership but missed the chance to lead outright as they laboured to break down an obdurate Sunderland who had been reduced to nine men after having two sent off in the first half. Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager, was also banished to the stands for protesting too vehemently to the referee Paul Danson and could now face FA disciplinary action.
Danson, who attracted similar berating from the Coventry manager Ron Atkinson earlier this season, was cast as the villain of the piece for his rigid application of the laws and consequently spoiling the spectacle. Martin Scott went for two fouls on Lee Dixon, Paul Stewart for two handballs.
"My reaction was very unprofessional and I apologise," said Reid. He was on less commendable ground, however, when he declared Scott's second yellow-card challenge "a good tackle", and that Stewart, who went five minutes before half-time, was handling the ball believing a free-kick would be awarded for a foul on him by Steve Bould.
"All we ask for is consistency," Reid said. But with Danson it is guaranteed; indeed his strictness has become notorious. Last season, as England's fifth highest card-issuer, he branded six red and 74 yellow in 19 matches.
Though the referee had not punished Dixon's early foul on Michael Gray, Scott's subsequent treatment of the Arsenal full-back was rash. Stewart, as every schoolboy knows, should have played to the whistle. His first yellow card had come when he attempted to guide the ball into the net with an arm.
The spectacle was indeed spoiled with Sunderland, understandably, simply getting the nine remaining behind the ball, eschewing attack. It was hardly the referee's fault, however, that Arsenal for a long period did not have the wit to find a way through. They retained three central defenders and their wing-backs, Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, remain full-backs despite their change of job title.
After a series of long-range shots and goalmouth scrambles, the breakthrough finally came when John Hartson headed home at the far post from Paul Shaw's cross. Now Sunderland had to attack and brought on the striker Michael Bridges.
It left them open to the counter-attack, however, and Arsenal confirmed the victory that Sunderland's misdemeanours merited when Paul Merson, continuing his inventive and industrious form despite the after-effects of a virus, broke from defence. He supplied Shaw, his pass wide found the other substitute Ray Parlour, who ran out to drive a fierce, angled shot past Tony Coton.
It was a sour end for Sunderland after a promising start. Steve Agnew should have given them a lead after taking Paul Bracewell's pass and turning Nigel Winterburn to be confronted by only David Seaman. From 12 yards he scooped over, however.
As Sunderland re-organised after Scott's dismissal in the 21st minute, which led to Reid's finger-pointing touchline protests that saw Mr Danson follow him to the bench to extend the argument and him being escorted from the piece by a policeman, Arsenal chances abounded.
Coton saved at the leggy, potentially potent Frenchman Patrick Vieira's feet; Hartson, standing alone six yards out, completely missed Merson's cross; and Ian Wright saw Andy Melville kick away his goalbound shot after Coton had dropped the ball.
It seemed that Arsenal would come to rue the misses but eventually they secured the result that will further encourage Arsene Wenger when he finally takes over properly as coach tomorrow. Despite their lofty position, he is clearly needed. No more farce please, we're British.