'It's not all doom and gloom.'
O'Neill's side were booed off the field after they lost to Championship opposition three days ago, with the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light becoming increasingly downbeat and rancorous as the evening wore on. The defeat came on the back of a poor start to the Premier League campaign that has seen Sunderland win just one of their opening eight matches, and the Black Cats' failure to test Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele followed hot on the heels of an equally shot-shy display at Stoke three days earlier. If not quite as mutinous as in the dark days of Steve Bruce, the prevailing mood ahead of tomorrow's home game with fellow strugglers Aston Villa could certainly be described as apprehensive, something O'Neill feels is unwarranted given that his side have only lost one league game.
"You're talking about expectation and the perceptions of it." said the Sunderland boss, whose record since replacing Bruce reads 15 wins from 41 matches in all competitions.
"From our view point, I must admit there are times when you feel as if you haven't registered a point on the board. We've lost one (league) game this season, we've lost against the champions of England who were too good for us and they've beaten us convincingly in the match."
"We haven't been beaten in another game. We've drawn a lot of matches and it's real doom and gloomSorry, I'm not going with that."
"It's not a matter of me just being stubborn for the sake of it, it's there. We're capable of winning some matches. It's a season myself and the team should be judged on, not a group of games."
"You can take a statistic from whatever group of games and put whatever spin you want on it. It's where we are at the end of the season (that counts)."
Nevertheless, while not quite as damaging as the derby defeat to Newcastle at the start of last season, it is hard to deny that Tuesday's loss to North-East rivals Middlesbrough could have a profound effect if results do not improve quickly. For the first time, a significant number of supporters began to openly question O'Neill's management, with even more criticising the performances of a number of players. Adam Johnson received ironic cheers when he was substituted, while there were cries of exasperation throughout the second half as passes were misplaced or crosses over-hit.
The atmosphere tomorrow is likely to be edgy, but O'Neill is confident his players have the requisite strength of character to succeed in such a testing situation.
"Since I came here and we were bottom three in December, the players have seldom let anyone down." he said.
"The two major ones are the (FA) Cup game against Everton and Tuesday night. There were a couple of matches, particularly at the back end of last season, when we didn't do enough in home games."
"But overall, the players here have not let anyone down. Indeed the spirit they have, which was badly bruised since the start of last season, has not been broken. That was the great thing that I clinged to when I came in - it's still here, you have to resurrect that spirit. Spirit alone is not enough to make a football club great. It's not. But the spirit does help and that spirit, when everyone is cat-calling at the moment, that spirit needs to be very, very strong."
This week's events have resulted in another round of questioning about what Sunderland's realistic ambitions should be. No one is denying that a win over Championship opposition should be within their compass, but Bruce used to constantly bridle at unrealistic expectations, and while O'Neill is reluctant to go down that road, it is clear he feels a sense of perspective is important. This is Sunderland's sixth consecutive season in the top-flight, historically, quite an achievement - but the Northern Irishman claims it is wrong to regard the club as an established Premier League force.
"Take out the top six at this minute, and none of the rest of us could talk about being an established side" he said.
"Sunderland at some stage or another should be, but we're not. Stoke City have done very well, played in Europe last year, but you start again. You start a new season, get a couple of setbacks and then you're scratching around for points. We're not an established Premier League side at this moment."
"Eventually in time, not only will Sunderland want to be an established side, we will want to be competing at the top level. That's the ambition. Whether or not it's realised is another thing."