WITHIN minutes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that Britain was effectively on lockdown on Monday, Toby Gilles’ family had a historic moment.
And he took to Twitter to announce it. He wrote: “My incredible sister delivered her first-born. Is he the UK’s first EVER baby born in #lockdown?
“I’m the proudest bro ever. Amazing times in the toughest times.”
This isn’t the only birth story in the Gilles family. For 35-year-old Toby was born “somewhere between Northwood and Watford General Hospital”, in a Vauxhall Astra.
And, he was quick to tell me that he landed on his head . . . and he wasn’t joking.
Raised in Northwood Hills, Toby is commentator for talkSPORT’s international coverage of the Bundesliga, as well as reading the news and covering other sports for the radio station, but is freelance.
The son of Cathryn (nee Dale) and Stuart, he said that his Jewish upbringing was “a bit mixed”.
He attended cheder and the Kol Chai Hatch End Reform synagogue.
“I really, really didn’t enjoy it at all, and it wasn’t really backed up at home,” he said.
“I was recently taking to my parents about it, and my mum says she regrets that what I was taught on a Sunday wasn’t backed up at home.
“It’s partly why I shied away from it — it just felt like such a chore — and I was badly bullied there, too, which was not taken seriously by the Sunday school.”
Toby, whose sister is called Tessa, was barmitzvah, but admits to rarely thinking about it since.
In recent times, due to some family medical history needing to be uncovered, he quizzed his parents on their family lineage.
His father Stuart’s maternal grandparents came from Austria to the UK, possibly Tottenham, before the First World War, while his paternal side is from Russia.
He said: “The story, which we’re never quite sure is true or not, is that our surname was possibly Chilles (with the classic Jewish ‘ch’).
“When they got off the boat into this country, the immigration officer had no idea how to spell that so just put down Gilles.”
His mother Cathryn’s paternal side came from Przemysl, Ukraine — although it is now in Poland — and were originally Cohens, while on her maternal side, her grandfather was dual American/British.
Toby attempted to read philosophy at Manchester University, but left half way through.
He recalls lying in bed on the morning of an important exam, telling himself, “even if I wanted to revise I can’t because I haven’t been to any lectures and I haven’t made any notes”.
He said: “I rang my parents at 5.30am and told them — they were really supportive, but wanted me to have a plan.
“I thought about what I really wanted to do, and that was football commentary.
“The university wasn’t happy, and didn’t like drop outs, so they sent me to counselling.
“The said I could return in September if I wanted to.
“I stayed for the rest of the year in Manchester, and worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland in its call centre, while living the life of a student . . . but with money.”
Toby found a post-graduate course at the National Broadcasting School in Brighton, but they initially said they only took people with degrees.
Long story short, and after much talking to the person who ran the course, he was accepted onto it, and his journey towards becoming a football commentator began.
His love of football is also a bit of a mystery.
He explained: “My dad, just because he was a nice dad, used to take me around the country to different clubs, but wasn’t bothered at all about it.
“He worked for the Manchester Evening News, and managed to get tickets to the 1994 FA Cup semi-final between Oldham Athletic and Manchester United.
“He actually read a book for the entire game, while I was sat there watching and enthralled.
“It was also the very first time I had ever sworn in front of my dad, thanks to the entire ground, in unison, chanting ‘Wembley is s***’ as a protest about the game not taking place somewhere closer to the two clubs.”
Toby describes himself as a bit of a “Statto”, but has learned that not everyone is and “I should be a bit sparing with them”.
He laughed: “You’ll often find me trawling Twitter to find these crazy stats that make you wonder how anyone has ever worked them out and why someone would find them interesting.
“Well, it’s interesting to idiots like me, to be honest.”
Toby began his broadcasting life at Palm FM, Torquay, before moving to KMFM — Kent’s biggest radio station.
But he wasn’t there for long, as he began his journey in earnest with a role at Liverpool’s Radio City and it’s sister station City Talk, which was, in 2007, the biggest radio station outside London.
And it is thanks to Steve Hothersall, who was news editor at the time, that he was given the chance, despite his relative inexperience.
“I had already tried to work there previously and was told by Steve to try again in a few years, when I had more experience,” he said. “So, I called up a year later and told him what I had been doing, and they offered me an interview.
“It was the right time, because two days later, the station in Kent made redundancies and I suspect I had been one of them.
“I was definitely the most inexperienced person Steve had ever hired at City, and I wasn’t really ready — I was daunted.
“I turned up the night before I was due to start, listened to Pete Price’s show and remember thinking that I couldn’t understand a single word that was being said.
“On my first day, I was shaking as I walked up to the building, and it took me a long, long time to settle there.
“The boss made it quite clear that what I was doing was not up to standard, but he kept me on, and eventually I settled enough in the news side — as it was very much news first, and sport second — that they sent me to cover Tranmere Rovers, because I told them I really wanted to become a commentator.”
Tranmere were not often used for live commentary, so Toby’s work, in 2008, often involved commentating on an entire game, which would then be cut down into a smaller highlights package to be played later that evening.
He also found himself covering Liverpool and Everton press conferences, which resulted in a complaint from then-Everton manager David Moyes, who assumed Toby had been sent there as a “wind up”.
He recalled: “He absolutely hated me. He used to think that I was there just to wind him up, when actually I was just trying to be a good journalist and ask the right, and sometimes probing, questions.
“He and his press officer would call my boss on a semi-regular basis to complain that I had done it again. My boss always listened back to the recordings and told them that they were legitimate questions.
“Moyes also called off an entire press conference because I asked him if he had had a falling out with striker Louis Saha.
“It was all a learning curve, and Radio City is where I really felt like there could be a career in sports journalism for me.”
In terms of living in Liverpool, he said he loved it, from the city, the people and the vibe to the architecture.
He was based in Crosby, although regrets not living in the south of the city where his friends were.
“I visited Princes Road Synagogue once, because I had heard it was beautiful, but that was the extent of my Jewish involvement during my time there,” he recalled.
“I’ve never hidden my Judaism, and if someone asks I always tell them who my parents are, I’ve had a barmitzvah and I’ve had a circumcision, but that really is about it.
“It plays very little role in my life. I would never criticise someone for having whatever religious beliefs they have, but I see an awful lot of damage that religion does.”
In 2013, talkSPORT radio, where Toby was now working, obtained the international broadcast rights to the Premier League, which was then followed by the Bundesliga, via a deal with online retailer Amazon.
The broadcaster launched a show around it, to accompany the commentary, of which Toby then became the face.
He recalled: “It’s still a league I’m learning about, and the more I research about it, the more I forget about the Premier League.
“I’ve completely fallen in love with it. Most of the commentary is done in the studio in London.
“I’d love to get the chance to go out and commentate on games, but I’ve not had that opportunity so far.
“I do still commentate on the Premier League for the international service, and was Manchester City’s club commentator in 2010/11.”
Away from sport, Toby has a role as a freelance trainer of ambassadors on how to handle the media.
He will perform a fake, but topical interview with them, as if it was live on air, and provide feedback on what they could have done better.
He explained: “I get told that this person is about to become an ambassador of a certain country, and I’ll talk to them about political issues, or other topical things, such as Coronavirus.
“Those are very busy days, and you go in there for the first time and you’re incredibly nervous.
“But you just have to remember that, although they are incredibly important people who work for the British Government, they are there to learn and appreciate the feedback you can offer.
“As journalists, the one thing you know is what makes a story and what would make a good or bad story.
“You want them to tell you certain things, but you’re there on their behalf, so you’re trying to tell them not to, or how to tell you certain things for their own protection.”
Looking back on his career, the best piece of advice he has been given, which came from the aforementioned Mr Hothersall at Radio City, was: “You’ll never make a good sports journalist unless you’re a good news journalist.
“You have to understand what makes a story, and the best way to do that is through news.”
* Follow him on Twitter @TobyGilles
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