Friday’s 4-0 loss to Finland in Helsinki was the worst result of an already punishing 2023 for Northern Ireland, in which wins over minnows San Marino have been the only escape from seven defeats in nine.
Peppered with questions about all the things that had gone wrong since March, how he can pick up his players, and whether he was keen to draw a line under this campaign, O’Neill sought to lighten the mood in what was often a dour press conference on Sunday.
“I’m not traumatised or anything, I’ll be alright!” O’Neill said.
“You make it sound like I’ve been in a car crash or something. It’s not like that.
“As a manager you’re consistently moving to the next game. I can look beyond the results. I don’t think drawing a line under it would help us in any way as part of our development as a team. I’m comfortable with it.
“You seem a lot more down about it than me. It’ll be alright, lads. Christmas is around the corner.”
Having come into the campaign with some optimism, a raft of injuries have left O’Neill with a squad in which only three players have more than 50 caps, while 14 are in single figures or yet to feature.
“I think you learn about the level more than anything else,” O’Neill said of the lessons being given.
“It’s nothing dramatic. The international game will have a more tactical approach but if you’re a young player on loan at a League One club in England, the game is a lot different to having to come away and play in Copenhagen against Denmark or Helsinki against Finland.
“It’s hugely different. The biggest thing is also the concentration levels, for younger players coming in, particularly attacking players, they are natural footballers and want to play but you have to tell them they aren’t going to get as many opportunities (on the ball).”
The injuries keep coming. While the return of Shea Charles from suspension is a major boost and Paul Smyth is back following injury, Daniel Ballard is a doubt with a hamstring issue.
With Jonny Evans already missing, Ballard’s absence would be a huge blow against a strong Denmark side.
“One of the challenges in this campaign is we’ve had to constantly change the team and we’ve constantly had to change the defensive line-up and that’s where we’ve struggled to get real consistency,” O’Neill said.
“When you’ve got a real strong back four or back three and consistency, from game to game you get belief and continuity and obviously we haven’t been able to do that in this campaign.”
O’Neill said last week that he and his players would need to look at themselves if they came all the way through Group H without having taken any points off any side other than San Marino.
It will be a tough ask to get that against Denmark, who booked their ticket to Euro 2024 with a 2-1 win over Slovenia on Friday, but O’Neill hopes his side can still find a way to send the Windsor Park faithful home happy.
“There is no patience in football, let’s be honest, or very little,” he said.
“I think that hopefully supporters will see a team who give a very good account of themselves.
“The reality is we’re playing at home, we’re playing a really good team, we’re not getting a chance to go to a major tournament so let’s give a good account of ourselves against a really good team so it breeds a little bit of positivity into all of you guys as well as everyone else.”