WHEN James Horan was asked if the Allianz League semi-final win over Kerry last April had dislodged a monkey off Mayo's back, his reply carried the merest hint of impatience.
"Monkeys don't interest me that much -- it's all about performance," he said.
The victory was chiselled out in the doubly dramatic form of a late rally which sent the game into extra-time, followed by a gritty completion of the task. And since it was achieved against Kerry, who had subjected Mayo to lots of misery in big games since their last defeat by the green-and-red in Croke Park in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final, the matter of the monkey and the back was always likely to be raised.
Horan wasn't entertaining it, probably for two reasons. Firstly, looking back is a painful business in Mayo football and, secondly, there was every chance Mr Monkey would leap aboard again in the league final. Indeed, that's exactly what happened as Mayo were well beaten by Cork after producing an enterprising first half.
Five months on, Mayo are preparing for an even bigger event in Croke Park, but dare not look back in case they are haunted by the memories of previous defeats, large and small.
They head into next Sunday's game with such a poor record in major finals over more than four decades that, in an odd way, it might even become a positive.
On the basis that the longer any particular sequence lasts, the more likely it is to end, Mayo will feel that they are due a break in a final. One win from 13 attempts in senior All-Ireland and NFL finals over the last 41 years is a dismal return, leaving them far behind most of the other top football powers.
Eleven defeats (they also had a draw v Meath in 1996) from 13 games certainly raises questions about their temperament in finals. Mayo's sole success, a one-point win over Galway, came in the 2001 league final, which means that they haven't beaten non-Connacht opposition in a final since out-scoring Down 4-7 to 0-10 in the 1970 NFL decider.
Their win over Galway has be put in context too since their neighbours haven't been at their most productive in finals either, winning only three times from 13 attempts since 1971. However, since two of those came in All-Ireland finals (1998-2001), it has taken the bleak look off the overall return.
The underage grades haven't been particularly good to Mayo either. Three wins from 11 attempts in minor finals and three wins from 12 U-21 finals over the past 41 is a disappointing yield. It means that when senior, minor and U-21 are combined, Mayo's record in finals since 1971 reads: Played 36; Won 7; Drew 5; Lost 24.
The years between 1951 (Mayo's last All-Ireland senior win) and 1971 were even bleaker -- certainly at senior level -- as they didn't reach a single All-Ireland final and won just three Connacht and two NFL finals.
In those circumstances, it's perfectly understandable that Horan and his players won't be looking back, because since the 1951 All-Ireland win, it has been largely barren territory at senior level except for three NFL wins.
Besides, the past can't be changed or shaped in any way, unlike the present which has taken on whole new, exciting dimension for Mayo.
However, there has to be a fear in Mayo that once again the virus which has infected them on so many big days will return next Sunday, although this time they will not be up against Kerry, Meath and Cork, the trio who wrecked their All-Ireland bids in 2006-2004-1997-1996-1989.
While Mayo have lost their only previous championship meeting with Donegal in 1992, they will still have a different feel about this final than if they were playing a county with a history of regular appearances in finals.
Donegal have already beaten Cork, Kerry and Tyrone, a trio who between them won eight of the last nine titles, but All-Ireland final day is brand new to all of Jim McGuinness' squad whereas some of the Mayo players have been through it before, albeit with very bad experiences against Kerry.
While Horan will be extremely anxious to banish all the negativity of past Croke Park defeats from the camp, there's no point pretending they didn't happen. One win from 13 senior finals in 41 years is not a statistic that can be lightly ignored as it suggests that Mayo never quite mastered the art of coping with the big day.
Their six All-Ireland final attempts since the early 1950s fell into three distinct categories, but, unfortunately for Mayo, none of them produced the desired result.
2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals
Even without the injured Darragh O Se, Kerry were far too quick off the blocks for Mayo, who trailed by 1-11 to 0-3 after 25 minutes and by 1-12 to 1-4 at half-time. It left Kerry with no greater challenge than to avoid defensive disasters in the second half, which they did quite easily. Indeed, Kerry were 11 points clear by the 48th minute and already looking forward to celebrating a 33rd title.
Kerry led by 3-6 to 1-0 after 26 minutes of the 2006 final and while Mayo got in for two goals before half-time, they were still six points down and facing a heavy defeat which eventually finished up at 13 points.
The Unlucky Ones
1996 All-Ireland final -- draw and replay
Mayo had every reason to believe they must have offended the entire black cat population before the 1996 All-Ireland final because they enjoyed no luck whatsoever in either the drawn or replayed finals with Meath.
Meath saved themselves in the drawn game with a late point from Colm Coyle when the ball bounced over the Mayo bar from a long range effort. It was, by any standards, a freakish score, completing a revival which saw Meath wipe out a six-point deficit in the final 25 minutes.
When the opening minutes of the replay produced a bust-up involving most players from both sides, any number of them could have been sent off, but Liam McHale and Coyle were the only two to be dismissed. McHale had been one of the stars in the drawn game, so his loss to Mayo was probably greater than Coyle's absence for Meath.
Even then, Mayo led by four points at half-time, but should have been much further ahead. In the end, they lost by a point, completing 140 minutes which created the clear impression that whatever Mayo did, the gods had pre-ordained that the 1996 title would have a Royal seal.
Close but not good enough
1989 and 1997 All-Ireland finals
If Anthony Finnerty's shot had found the net, rather than whizzing outside the post at the three-quarter mark of the Mayo-Cork final in 1989, would All-Ireland history have taken a different turn? Perhaps not.
A goal would have put Mayo three points clear and while they later went a point up, Cork finished strongly, running out 0-17 to 1-11 winners. Ultimately, it was a triumph for experience in what was Cork's fourth final in three seasons (they played Meath three times in 1987-88). By 1988, Cork were very formidable and were always likely to out-last Mayo on the run-in.
Mayo could have no complaints in 1997 either as Kerry were the better team on a day when Maurice Fitzgerald scored 0-9 of their 0-13 total. Mayo pared an interval deficit of five points back to one in the second half before Fitzgerald kicked two more points to ensure Kerry's first All-Ireland win since 1986.
It was Mayo's last appearance in an All-Ireland final for seven years.