"I've never been scared of an Old Firm game in my life," he said after this defeat. "And I don't plan on starting now." Standing in a small room inside Tannadice, faced again by the realisation that his team is diminished and held together only by the compromised decisions he makes, the Rangers manager clung to the last of his resolve.
If Motherwell fail to beat Kilmarnock on Saturday, Celtic could win the Clydesdale Bank Premier League title with a victory at Ibrox the following day. The prospect alone must gall Rangers fans, who are having to come to terms with every discomfort of this crisis and would consider that scenario as the final indignity.
There was reason for optimism in the way the players agreed to a collective wage cut to save jobs, and then several interested parties made indicative offers for the club last Friday. Yet three defeats in four games since Rangers fell into administration tells of the human impact of the predicament, the melancholy the players must carry around with them. They weren't without spirit at Tannadice, and Peter Houston, the Dundee United manager, admitted afterwards that his players were disappointed with their own display, but that only further emphasises the misfortunes of this Rangers team.
There were rookies in the side, with Rhys McCabe, a 19-year-old midfielder making only his second start, playing at right-back, and Andrew Mitchell, a 20-year-old making his debut, in front of him in midfield. Rangers fielded seven internationalists, with three on the bench, but it was an improvised line-up, with Lee McCulloch at centre-back and Andrew Little playing on his own up front.
At times, as he leaned forward from the touchline cajoling and instructing McCabe and Mitchell, it was possible to see McCoist restricted to trying to nurture these youngsters as they attempt to carry the burden of maintaining something of the old competitive standards. The Rangers manager made a stand for those same values when he named only five substitutes, remarking that players had to "earn their place" even on the bench, because "that's the way it's always been at our club".
This might be the best of McCoist, his understanding of the particular demands of Rangers, what attitudes must be protected when an institution is being forced to confront its dwindling certainties. Rangers were already in a dispiriting run of form before administration, and McCoist would concede that his own merits were beginning to come under scrutiny, but in an unforeseen way the plight of his club has reaffirmed his role as a rousing, symbolic figure, capable of being more to the support than merely the manager.
His team needs to be restored, particularly when Celtic have been in such implacable form. McCoist was careful not to subdue the mood of Ross Perry when he spoke of the prospect of Dorin Goian and Carlos Bocanegra returning after suspension. "When you lose two proven internationals who have about 140 caps between them, you'd welcome them back into the fold," he said.
Rangers were not picked apart by United, even although Johnny Russell and, in particular, Gary Mackay-Steven had the pace and the cunning to trouble the defence. The game was even until Keith Watson lashed a volley beyond Allan McGregor late in the first half, and the home side's only real period of dominance came early in the second-half, when Mackay-Steven was isolating McCabe then racing away from him to whip crosses into the penalty area. From one delivery, Jon Daly stole in front of Lee Wallace to stab the ball into the net.
McCabe looked uncomfortable at times, but he played well in midfield against Hearts the previous Saturday, Mitchell was less involved, apart from being booked for a series of rash challenges early on, but there is a sense of the young players trying to survive this situation as much as their more experienced colleagues.
Steven Davis, McCulloch, Maurice Edu and McGregor showed fight and determination, but these are futile qualities when the mood of the team collectively, and of the club around it, is forlorn, although Sone Aluko pulled one goal back with a deflected cross. "I don't believe that we deserved to lose," McCoist said. "Administration is a massive factor for everybody involved with the club. But listen, it's an opportunity for some of the young boys to come in and I'm very pleased with them."
United were well served by their two irrepressible young attackers, but also Daly, Paul Dixon and Gavin Gunning. Houston saw his own squad depleted last summer and there was a fraught spell earlier in the season, but the team now plays with a familiar impudence and energy. "It's a massive three points for us in our quest to try to get into the top six," he said. "I've got to credit the young guys and the experienced players for knuckling down and working hard."
For Rangers, the imperative is to try to hold on to some kind of resilience. Players will be pressed into impromptu roles on Sunday, but McCoist will still make demands of them. He understands that allowing that principle to fall would be a negligence.
"We've got players who can win the [Old Firm] game," McCoist said. "Arguably, the future of the club is more important, but there's time to do both."