INSPIRATION comes in many guises and Ally McCoist does not have to venture far for any in the midst of a turbulent season for Rangers.
"I've got a photo of him on my desk and I was looking at it this morning,'' said the Rangers manager yesterday, on the 17th anniversary of the death of Davie Cooper, his friend and team-mate. "There's not a day goes by when I don't think of Coops. It's for people like Davie, Jock Wallace, Mr [Willie] Waddell, Mr [Willie] Thornton and guys like that we have to get through this low period in the club's history.''
A tribute, too, was paid to Cooper by Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, who said at his news conference: ''I never came across the guy and he passed away too early. But I thought he was a brilliant player and a class act. People like Jimmy Johnstone, Jim Baxter, Henrik Larsson and Brian Laudrup do transcend the barriers and earn the respect of both sets of supporters. I'd put Davie in that category."
This pleasing unity will evaporate on contact tomorrow. The managers will diverge dramatically when they step out on to Ibrox. The task for Lennon is to marshal a side that may just be one victory away from a Clydesdale Bank Premier League title. McCoist, in contrast, is the leader of a club that faces a myriad of problems off the field and an awkward one on it. Rangers are one defeat away from an historic fourth consecutive loss at Ibrox.
The Rangers manager is not one who needs to be motivated before an Old Firm match, but he might just have to be encouraged as he faces a Celtic team that has not lost in 21 consecutive league matches.
His optimism may be heightened if he casts his mind back to the bright afternoon of September 18. Celtic took a half-time lead at Ibrox and were subsequently battered to a resounding 4-2 defeat. Rangers were on top of the league, CVAs were merely a glint in an administrators' eye and most people in Scotland thought EBTs were a type of sweetie.
"Light years away,'' said McCoist, reflecting on a time when he managed a football club rather than an unfolding financial crisis. ''It's bizarre. In many ways it's strange to think it was the same season. Yes, it was definitely a different time. That particular game I couldn't believe we went in at half time 2-1 down. And I remember asking the boys for a reaction and, arguably, the second half performance might be as well as we have played all year."
It may be the best McCoist has felt, certainly in football terms, all season. The disappointments of European exits had been dispelled by a vigorous, vibrant performance.
Six months on he still can smile, but it has been a demanding period. ''I do not really know how to describe it, but it has certainly been an experience. Certainly, somewhere down the line, we will have a bottle of beer and look back on it and say: 'What a six months that was'.
''I have probably had more experience in the last six months than any manager in world football. I just hope that I can take from it, learn from it. It goes without saying that you will make mistakes and, of course, I have. But in terms of the whole experience, if there is another manager or coach who has gone through something similar then I would love to sit down and have a chat with them.''
McCoist, who has spoken with prospective owners Paul Murray and Brian Kennedy this week, now faces the task of consoling a support that has been dismayed by the financial problems and dejected by the performance of the team.
Rangers will win no trophies this season, but tomorrow's match carries its normal tariff of critical importance. McCoist will pick the vast majority of the side that beat Celtic in September. Steven Whittaker and Sasa Papac will return to the starting line-up, while Kyle Lafferty, who performed so strongly in the 4-2 victory, may have to be content with a place on the bench.
The problem for McCoist is that he has no adequate replacements for two of the three players he can not pick from the team in September. The absence of Gregg Wylde, whose offer of voluntary redundancy was accepted by the club's administrators, can be tolerated, not least as McCoist hinted that Sone Aluko will return to the team after being a substitute at Tannadice last week. However, Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavic have been stripped from the side through injury and a transfer and they added both a technical excellence and a sharpness to Rangers. McCoist has therefore to compensate for the loss of his two best players at the start of the season and hope for a resurgence in form from his third, Steven Davis.
The Rangers manager has always been positive and it would be no surprise to see him play with a 4-4-2 set-up against Celtic, as he did in the fixture at Parkhead on December 28. Lee McCulloch and Andy Little will be the two strikers with Lafferty, another returning from injury, coming off the bench to play up front at some point. Aluko, Davis, Maurice Edu and Lee Wallace would form the midfield, with Whittaker and Papac flanking the central defence of Dorin Goian and Carlos Bocanegra.
The inclusion of Whittaker and Papac could be seen as a gamble but McCoist, frankly, has few options and he knows experience plays a crucial part in Old Firm matches. "There are certain individuals who can hack it playing for the Old Firm but taking it to another level, it's only certain individuals who can star in these games," he said.
''I've loved the Old Firm matches as a player, in many ways I lived for them. It's like a drug. I don't know if you enjoy them, but it's something you look forward to because you need them. I enjoyed them far better as a player because I was out on the pitch and I could have an influence on the result.''
He is condemned to be an observer tomorrow. The past six months may have been a blur. These 90 minutes will make it look as frantic as a still life.