THEY had the battle fever on.

Rangers may not have won the war on Saturday but Ally McCoist and his players at least showed that they were up for the fight as they came so near yet were so far from their biggest win of the campaign and a place in the Scottish Cup final.

With the words of legendary Ibrox boss Jock Wallace emblazoned across the front of the Copland Road stand prior to kick-off against Dundee United, it was evident that this was an occasion Rangers, and their fans, had been waiting for some time.

After two seasons of slugging it out with part-time teams on their way to the Third Division and League One titles, this was much more like it for Rangers as, just for one day, they returned to the stage where they belong and, eventually, will get back to on a permanent basis.

Ally McCoist's side may have been underdogs against one of Scotland's top teams but, if Rangers were going to go down, they were going to go out fighting.

Less than a week after booing their side off after defeat to Raith Rovers, the Light Blue legions responded with a battle cry of their own in an attempt to inspire the Gers to victory.

The noise hasn't reverberated around Ibrox like this for quite some time but, come the end of a frantic, end-to-end cup tie, it was the sizeable travelling support from Tayside who would have something to shout about.

The United crowd, 11,000-strong, had three reasons to celebrate as goals from Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci clinched the win and ensured Jackie McNamara's side will return to Glasgow for the final at Parkhead next month.

The outcome may not have surprised many but the 3-1 scoreline doesn't tell the whole story of what might have been for Rangers as they turned in their best performance of the campaign yet still came up short.

There was a purpose and determination to McCoist's side but it was United who had the quality and reaped the rewards as a result.

On paper, Rangers have a group of players that should be capable of mixing it with Premiership teams but Saturday once again emphasised just how much work still has to be done to return the club to its former glory.

"We've still got miles to go," McCoist said. "It's just confirmed what we've always thought. I've reckoned we had a side of top-flight ability and I think that's maybe been shown to be the case today.

"But it's also confirmed that we've got a long, long way to go. The last two defeats have just confirmed to us what we need to do and what we need to add to the team and the squad shorter-term and longer-term."

After weeks of turgid, uninspiring performances, the champions finally upped their game as Premiership high-flyers United came to town but mistakes, unlike when they are made in the third tier, cost Rangers dear.

Dean Shiels and Jon Daly spurned two glorious chances just seconds before United's first two goals, the Northern Irishman firing well wide when through one-on-one, and the Light Blues' top scorer blasting high over the bar against his former club.

It was at the back where Rangers' lack of quality cost them, however, as Armstrong was left untracked to beat an offside trap and open the scoring before Mackay-Steven's deflected effort looped over Steve Simonsen after Richard Foster and Bilel Mohsni got themselves in a tangle at the corner flag.

The biggest mistake was saved until last, though, as, with Rangers chasing the equaliser in the dying minutes, Ian Black needlessly gave the ball away and Simonsen gifted Ciftci the winner with a moment the veteran keeper will never want to see again.

"We're all disappointed and you win and lose as a team," McCoist said.

"Of course there were ­individual errors but Steve is no more disappointed than the rest of us.

"All defeats are very, very difficult to take and this was a really sore one because I did feel we were the better side and that we had the better chances."

Unlike at Easter Road, the final whistle brought a round of applause rather than boos from the Light Blue legions, who will return to Ibrox tomorrow night as McCoist's side look to take another step towards an unbeaten League One campaign against Forfar.

The Championship title is the next objective for Rangers but, having whet their appetite with a taste of the big time, there is still some way to go before occasions like Saturday are a regular occurrence at Ibrox once again.