It avoided a repeat of the Euro 2016 loss to France in the summer as an early lead was followed by the concession of two quick second-half goals to turn a promising situation into a nightmare.
This occasion was incomparable, however, with Serbia away sounding tougher than it is in reality, with local indifference resulting in a half-empty stadium with away fans making a lot of the noise.
At the end, they were happy, but a better side than the Serbs would have capitalised on a sloppy display that was notable for poor passing and an absence of spark until it seemed that a zero point return was a possibility.
Still, this phase of the campaign is about staying in contention and O'Neill will be satisfied with the outcome.
The day was filled with doubts created by the weather, but the referee was relaxed that the pitch would pass an inspection. He didn't even bring a ball with him for the walkabout.
The build-up to this trip had featured the usual cliches about facing into a hostile atmosphere, but the reality was nowhere close to that.
Football fans in Serbia have been worn down by disappointments at senior level and they need to be convinced that it's worth turning out in bigger numbers.
Their team's start justified the actions of the stayaways. The Republic kicked off with the same purpose as their last competitive game in Lyon and got a comparable reward by opening the scoring in the third minute.
James McClean's invention was the genesis, drawing a foul that led to a free-kick. When Robbie Brady's unremarkable effort was weakly parried away by rookie keeper Predrag Rajkovic, a combination of a John O'Shea cross and a Shane Long touch paved the way for a first-time Jeff Hendrick shot that clipped Branislav Ivanovic on its way into the net.
The £10.5m man chose the perfect moment to get off the mark for his country.
It gave the Republic a lead that they carried to the interval.
O'Neill had opted for what ended up being close to a 4-5-1 with McClean and Jon Walters pegged back to try and help full-backs Stephen Ward and new captain Seamus Coleman.
Hamburg's Filip Kostic did force a stop from Darren Randolph, and Coleman did clear off the line when the keeper lost control of one situation, yet it was scrappy stuff on a pitch that was cutting up.
New Serbian coach Slavoljub Muslin withdrew Aleksandar Mitrovic on the hour mark, in search of some inspiration. Copenhagen's Andrija Pavlovic was dispatched into the fray.
Then a routine cross from Ivanovic was dealt with poorly as Dusan Tadic wriggled away from O'Shea and Coleman got lured to the ball, leaving space behind for Kostic to convert.
The goal gave Serbia belief and, suddenly, the Republic looked properly rattled. Seven minutes later, they were behind. Ref Viktor Kassai had angered the Republic by refusing to book Serbians for some earlier fouls and he was in the bad books again when he gave them a penalty.
The clever Kostic invited contact as Walters chased him back into the box and his theatrical response resulted in a spot kick. Tadic slotted it away.
It could have got even worse with a fumble from Randolph presenting Pavlovic with a glorious chance, which he smacked against the bar.
O'Neill looked to his bench and introduced Stephen Quinn for Ward, a switch that relocated Brady to left-full.
Next came Murphy for Hendrick. The reshuffle worked and the Republic lifted the tempo and began to bring the game to the Serbs.
First, a Walters header was chalked off by the linesman, and then McClean should have levelled with a close-range header that sailed over the bar. Long wasted a better opportunity when he outpaced his pursuers and poked goalwards, with Rajkovic pushing it behind.
That break gave the Republic their equaliser as Brady's devilish delivery was convincingly dispatched by Murphy. A coherent five-minute spell had exposed Serbian inadequacies.
But it was Serbia who showed the greater desire to go in search of a winner as the Republic looked heavy-legged and dropped deep again.
O'Neill was happy with the point, but the performance has left significant room for improvement.
COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? email@example.com